Bob was born in 1913 into a working class family in Dundee. After leaving school at 13 he completed a five year apprenticeship to become a stone mason. As World War II escalated Bob joined the 7th Battalion of the Black Watch and in February 1942 started training as a Bren Gunner. An inspection by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 1st June 1942 preceded embarkation from Glasgow on June 18th. As part of the 51st Highland Division, the 7th Black Watch were aboard the Stratheden which was a P&O owned cruise ship designed to carry 1,500 passengers and crew but as a troop ship carried 5,000 soldiers. The officers were housed on the upper decks, but the bulk of soldiers were crammed onto stuffy lower decks. The Stratheden was part of a convoy of 16 troop ships and 4 cargo ships which was escorted by 8 destroyers for the 10,000 mile, 8 week journey.
|Cruise Ship ‘Stratheden’|
The convoy reached the port of Free Town, Sierra Leone on July 2nd in monsoon rain. At just seven miles north of the equator and known as the ‘white man’s grave’, no one was allowed ashore due to virulent Malaria. The convoy remained in port until July 5th, enduring uncomfortable humid temperatures.
Four days after leaving Free Town, Private Wedderburn, age 26, died on board after an accident with a Tommy gun. July 20th saw the convoy enter port in Durban, South Africa, where the men disembarked to stay in camps outside the city for six days. Although this was a break from life on board ship, route marches were carried out every day. Prior to arrival, the men had been warned by the CO not to comment on any treatment to the natives that they might consider being inhumane, being told ‘the South Africans knew how to run their country without any help from us’!
July 26th saw the convoy sail out of Durbin towards the Middle East. As they again neared the equator, the sun beat down on the boat with such ferocity that it was impossible to touch the ship’s railings for fear of suffering a burn. The Convoy made a short stop to refuel in Aden, Yemen, before heading up the Red Sea to the final destination of Port Tewfik, Suez, Egypt, which was reached on 11th August 1942.
Troops began to acclimatise to desert conditions, and over time the training became more strenuous, especially at night, with an emphasis on desert navigation and digging defensive positions. The flies were said to be the hardest thing to contend with due to the vomiting and diarrhoea they caused.
|Bob (centre) – Cairo 1942|
On the 1st September 1942 Bob’s Battalion was put on two hours’ notice to occupy battle positions. The following seven weeks consisted of continued intensive training as well as periods where the battalion were ordered to defensive positions which were to be held at all costs. The battalion assembled on October 21st to be given the battle plans for the El Alamein offensive that was to begin on the night of October 23rd / 24th. The 51st Highland Division’s objective was to reach the north west end of Miteiriya Ridge and Kidney Ridge by clearing a corridor through the “Devil’s Garden” which was the German minefields and barbed wire that formed their defensive line, made up of 445,000 mines, trip wires and booby traps 5 miles deep.
Late on October 22nd Bob’s Battalion moved up to the Alamein Line, dug in and lay up throughout the day of October 23rd concealed in two man slit trenches. It was clear from the absence of shelling that tactical surprise had been achieved. As day turned to night, it was a bright moonlit night as expected. At 21.40 hours, a 1,000 gun artillery barrage rained down for 15 minutes along the 40 mile German line. As the guns bombarded the enemy, Franciscan nuns sixty miles away in the Sacred Heart Convent in Alexandria could feel their building shake and heard the thunder of the guns. At 21.55 the barrage stopped for 5 minutes before continuing at 22.00 to provide cover for the advance. Bob’s battalion crossed the start line at the time detailed, zero hour + 70 minutes, and passed through the 5th Cameron’s position as planned. They were met with very heavy artillery and mortar defensive fire where heavy casualties were sustained. The final objective was reached around 04.00 hours and the battalion took up position alongside the 21st New Zealand Battalion. In the first night of the battle the 7th Black Watch lost 67 men killed and approximately 140 were wounded. Bob was one of the wounded and spent nearly a month in hospital.
|Notification received by Bob’s family|
The Allies continued to advance over the following days, but heavy rains on November 6th / 7th bogged troops down giving the Germans the chance to retreat back to El Agheila and form a new defensive position. The 7th Black Watch lost another 8 men killed up to the 7th November as well as suffering multiple men wounded.
The following few weeks saw the Battalion moving west towards El Agheila, arriving seven miles to the south on December 5th. One fatality was sustained by the battalion during this period. Bob was now back with his battalion being discharged from hospital on November 17th.
The battle to take El Agheila started on 12th December 1942 with the 7th Black Watch being initially held up by three enemy flanks, where two men were wounded. By 04.00 on 13th December the battalion had reached their position astride the Agheila road. During the night the battalion suffered 8 men killed and a further 15 men wounded. Before the battle for El Agheila was won on the 17th December the battalion had suffered another 4 men killed and 3 wounded.
The 18th December was the start of a 14 day period of training whilst also moving west in pursuit of the Germans. Bob’s battalion were given Christmas Day and New Year’s Day as a holiday. They lost another man in this period, killed on December 28th. As the battalion continued westward towards Tripoli on the afternoon of 7th January 1943, they were temporarily stopped by enemy fighters where 5 men were killed and 10 wounded. By January 10th the battalion had established a reconnaissance post to the east of Tripoli and carried out patrols for the following two days, during which one man was killed by enemy shelling. On the night of January 14th / 15th the battalion moved into battle positions in preparations for the assault on Tripoli. Heavy enemy shelling led to two men wounded.
During January 17th / 18th the battalion advanced westward with a tank squadron, encountering only little enemy resistance. On 19th January Bob’s Battalion were in advance of all other troops to the west of Homs and opposite enemy positions when they were heavily shelled, suffering one dead from shelling and four wounded by Anti-tank mines. On the 20th January at 16.00 the battalion were ordered on an 18 mile night march to close in on enemy positions which they reached by 06.30 the following morning. At 07.30 the battalion were engaged by mortars and machine guns before going on the offensive themselves at 08.00. The whole forward area was found to be full of machine guns, 20mm cannon and mortars. After more than 4 hour’s fighting, the enemy was forced to withdraw completely. During the attack the battalion had only Bren Guns and rifles, getting no assistance from tanks which had found difficulty in moving. 10 men from 7th Black Watch were killed and 26 wounded. Additionally, one Major, One Lieutenant and 38 other ranks were taken prisoner during an enemy counter attack near Tripoli. Bob was among the captured men.
|Notification received by Bob’s family|
12th May 1943 Bob arrived at POW Camp 70, a disused factory with large concrete warehouses, located in Monturano on the East Coast of Italy. 27th June 1943 Bob was transferred to POW Camp 91, approximately 65 miles east of Rome in Avezzano Italy. However, three months later the Italians capitulated and Bob with his fellow POWs were free for approximately three weeks before subsequent recapture.
The Germans marched the POWs from Italy to Germany where they were interned in Stalag IV A, situated in a castle east of Hohnstein near Dresden. The Red Cross report on Stalag IV A said that conditions were poor and the camp was seriously overcrowded. Most POWs had only one uniform and trousers were often in rags. Hygienic arrangements were bad with primitive latrines that were only emptied when full. Men were worked very hard, many at the lignite mine two hours away. The camp commandant from March 1943 through to March 1944, Stabsartz Kirshner, was said to be a very unpleasant man in every way. Reports said that Indian prisoners were treated badly and the flogging of Russian prisoners was a regular occurrence.
On 31st January 1944 Bob was transferred to Stalag IV F, located in large administrative buildings in Hartmannsdorf near Chemnitz. There were 24,035 prisoners of whom 4,355 were British. A Red Cross report observed that most British prisoners had arrived from Italy, and that the condition of their clothing was poor with around a third wearing the uniform of a different nationality from their own. POWs were employed by a paper factory loading and unloading waggons, making pulp, working on paper machines etc. There were two shifts of 12 hours a day with a one hour break for lunch. Other POWs were employed digging air raid shelters in town, working in a shoe factory, in a coal mine, a lead mine, a leather factory and a stone quarry. The camp commandant was Oberst Haendler who was an able and authoritative officer.
Bob was released as a POW on the 13th May 1945. On return from Germany his medical assessment noted that due to physical defects he could no longer carry heavy loads or stand for prolonged periods. This was due to the severe damage to his legs that were incurred during the forced march from Italy to Germany in 1943. These injuries plagued him for the rest of his life. He was finally demobilised on 4th December 1945 and he returned to his wife and daughter in Dundee and to his job as a stone mason. His son was born the following year, completing his family. Unlike so many of his comrades, Bob lived to see his two children grow up and have their own families, and also lived to see all six of his Grand Children reach early adult hood, before he passed away in May 1995 at the age of 81. I was the fifth of Bob’s six Grand Children.
|Bob’s Discharge Certificate|
During World War Two a British battalion typically had around 800 men. In the two months before he was captured, 106 men from Bob’s battalion were killed, approximately 13% of the total. Additionally, at least 200 men or 25% of the battalion were injured (it was actually more, but on occasions the battalion diary only mentions men being wounded without giving numbers). Bob himself was wounded at El Alamein which required nearly a month of hospitalisation.
When Barack Obama unsuccessfully attempted to influence the EU referendum by saying that the sacrifices of the World Wars would be in vain if the UK left the (German dominated) EU, he was crass, disrespectful and cynical. I am sure that Bob would have been infuriated by Obama’s words. Furthermore, when a Remainiac labels a Leave voter as uneducated I can only shake my head at their stupidity. If a Remainiac would only set aside their latest ‘virtual signalling cause’ for a moment to pause and take a look, they would nearly all find a ‘Bob’ within the roots of their family tree. A Bob who would have been one of a band of brothers, who may have shed his blood or saw a comrade shed their blood, to allow us to live free from German oppression. Maybe Remainiacs just do not want to confront their guilt in finding a ‘Bob’ in their family. A ‘Bob’ who would be thoroughly ashamed at his descendants flagrant disregard for the hard won freedom that he and his ‘brothers’ had bequeathed them.