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To War With The Bays: 52 - Fireflies and Butterflies

…We brought the tanks to Matera and parked them on waste ground on the edge of the town in an area abounding with fireflies. On guard at night the tanks appeared to be trimmed with fairy lights…

Jack Merewood and his colleagues undergo further training in Italy – though there’s time for Jack to write letters in French for his colleagues who made friends with locals while they were in North Africa.

I had been hoping for a letter from Suzette. I hadn't expected another four from her family, but I was delighted and sat down promptly to answer them all.

We had now to collect our tanks from Taranto. A few men had been left there to guard them, one of whom was Dave. On arrival we found he'd been mixed up in a brawl in a bar the night before, and had been stabbed and taken to hospital. We didn't know the details, but Dave was a pugnacious man at the best of times, one to steer clear of, especially when he'd been drinking. Even so, this was quite a shock, though his condition didn't appear to be serious.

We brought the tanks to Matera and parked them on waste ground on the edge of the town in an area abounding with fireflies. On guard at night the tanks appeared to be trimmed with fairy lights.

I had a letter from Ronnie. He was still in his office in Maison Carrée and not liking it a bit. Just like everyone else, he had hoped and expected that a move from Algeria would be to England. His wife Emily had had a baby boy, Ronald, in February 1941, who was only a few months old when Ronnie last saw him. Now he was over three.

After about three weeks in Matera we left our monastery. It had been pleasant there. I'd made friends with the family of the lady who did our washing and even went with them on a picnic. In those three weeks her husband taught me the words to 'Lili Marlene' in Italian!

We didn't go far, just out in the country where we pitched tents. Once again it was the usual training but with the difference that now we were in a populated area, and were training for a different kind of warfare, where there were houses, towns and farms.

The CO gave us the usual pep talk, all of which we've heard before, "Sooner we beat the Hun, sooner we'll be home" etc. etc. It was the old story.

Then someone in the hierarchy decided that in this type of country, as we would be more involved with the infantry, it would be a good idea for us to experience something of their way of life. So we went on infantry training.

9 June: 'Advanced about three miles, everybody on their knees and fed up by the time we'd finished.' After a week we knew enough of infantry life to appreciate that it was tough, and that thankfully we didn't have to pretend to be infantrymen any more. We moved to an area where there were 'some wonderfully coloured butterflies, dozens of different kinds; wrote to Jessie and told her about them.'

Dave came back after his spell in hospital. Of course the fight hadn't been his fault. He'd got into an argument and before he knew where he was, one of the Italian sailors there had knifed him. Well, that was his story. I wondered if perhaps the man hadn't been able to understand Dave's English, let alone his rather individual method of conversation. He had grabbed the man, pulled his face into his and started to speak slowly and deliberately, only to find this wasn't a timid Arab workman, but a roughneck with a knife. All the same it was good to see our fearless troop sergeant back with us.

I was busy writing letters in French now for about half the squadron who'd left various girlfriends back in Algeria. Sergeant Smudger Smith's girl and I were still corresponding on his behalf. He was a tank commander in No. 3 Troop, an old regular, not good-looking by any stretch of the imagination, and with a wife and children back home, although this appeared to be of little conse¬quence. I'd never met Smudger's friend, but if she was anything like him she might not have been much of a catch.

I liked writing letters, but was much more interested in writing them to my own French friends than sending love letters to other people's girls I'd never met. However, I helped when I could. The mail was slow coming through, and I wondered how things were going in Aumale. It was time I had another letter from there.

When the mail finally arrived, among mine were two letters from Aumale, one from Suzette, and one from Mme Hugnit, telling me that life there was going on the same as always, and both wondering if we might be returning to Algeria. I was pleased to get a letter from Marie too, saying how much they missed us at the farm, it was so quiet now. Bachir wished he could write, but asked her to tell me he was thinking about me.


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