Waziristan (1940) - The North-West Frontier
Between April and September 1940, the 2nd Worcestershire Regiment were employed on road protection duties in Waziristan, a period dealt with in five lines in Birdwood's History. Mr Alf Deakin (whose father served in the 1st Sherwood Foresters in WW1) was with the 2nd Battalion at the time and here recalls some memories of what life was like then for 'an ordinary chap from the rank and file'.
A man in the ranks knows little or nothing about strategy, planning and the like. He does as he is told, and goes where he is ordered to go, and that is that. Sometimes the monotonous daily slog on the N.W. Frontier was livened up with the odd sniping shot and its aftermath, such as the time when the Battalion was on column, moving slowly along a dried river bed. There was the sound of a single rifle shot from afar which put everybody on edge. The CQMS (C/Sgt. Browett) went down, saying he had been hit in the back. A hole was found in his haversack (we wore those on the back, instead of the big valise), but a white enamel plate in it had stopped the bullet from going any further and the shot was more or less spent, I would say. These tribesmen occasionally took a pot-shot from long distances. They were good marksmen and they had equally good rifles, mostly British Lee-Enfields, and of course they used ammo very sparingly.
Out on routine road protection, the Battalion had to occupy high features which dominated the road. This was on a "road-opening day", when supplies, odds and sods etc were brought from the base at Bannu to the various perimeter camps and forts dotted all over Waziristan. At the same time anything and anybody to go back to Bannu went on road-opening day. The transport was hired out to the Army by a native contracting firm, the Bhagai Motor Transport. Usually these vehicles were clapped-out old, single-decker type buses and lorries with native civilian drivers. Fortunately for these people, the roads were very good, having been constructed by the Sappers and Miners. On road-opening days the heights either side of the road for many miles were secured by troops from the many camps and forts all the way. Obviously each unit had its own sector. They left their perimeter camps at dawn and withdrew back to their bases at given times, before dark. Some features had permanent picquets cramped up in stone sangars. They would be relieved every ten or fourteen days on average. Usually a permanent picquet was at platoon strength, under an officer.
Lieut. Peter Roose (centre) standing in front of a Indian Army Crossley armoured car
(1st March 1940)
Most features we occupied from Rayani had names, given no doubt many years before by the military: Sugar Loaf, MKP, Basil's Bump, 101, Camel's Hump, Green-woods Corner, North Point, to name but a few. One day we had to occupy MKP, a long ridge about a thousand yards long, and 7000 to 8000 ft high. It so happened that L/Cpl Knight of 'A' Coy had been shot dead on this feature a few weeks previously. (L/Cpl. G. S. Knight was killed on 26.7.40.) It was said that he was leading man (section commander) and instead of climbing up the usual spur, he went up another one. These approaches had been worked out as the safest way long before our time up there, that's for sure. Well, Knight got to the crest where the tribesman were waiting. They knew the drill all right. Usually the troops would wait for everybody to catch up and get their breath back, about thirty yards from the top. Then it was fix bayonets, up and over the crest.
One day I was up there with 'B' Coy and, because of the recent loss of L/Cpl. Knight, the Colonel took no chances. He had a section of Vickers MMGs to rake the hillsides all the way up in front of the troops. As the troops climbed higher and higher so the gunners lifted their ranges. They took their safety angles from leading soldiers who wore orange-coloured aprons on their backs. These aprons showed up for miles.
The machine-gunners would remain in their same positions, usually at or near the bottom of the hills, until the withdrawal of the picquets in the late afternoon. The last man off the top wore the orange-coloured apron on his front so that the machine-gunners could cover the troops down. They would open fire on the summit as soon as the last man had given them the required safety angle. It had been known, though it never happened during our time there, for hostiles to come from nowhere on to the crest and fire down at the withdrawing troops. The size of the picquet would depend on the height plus the size of the area to be secured and could be a rifle section, platoon or two platoons, or even a whole company. If it was very high, as each body withdrew they would run so far down the slope then form a layback, covering the last troops off the top. Whether advancing to the summit, or actually running down-hill around rocks, boulders and bushes, we all had a queer, tense feeling, not only because of the fear of sniping or ambush, but when our own "gunners" were firing we could hear the snap of their bullets overhead. They seemed quite close, say only a foot above one's head, but I assume they were a few yards above. Even so, we prayed that no bullets would travel lower than the fixed elevation for our safety. Of course none ever did, but, even as I write this, some two-thirds of a lifetime after the event, I have a squeamish feeling in the pit of my stomach, imagining the crack of our own machiner-gun¬ners' bullets just a few inches above my head. Those cracks seemed so close.
During the course of this particular morning, while the machine gunners were sitting it out in their position, Cpl. C was shot in the leg. He was i/c the two Vickers. This was related to me later that night, back in the safety of the perimeter camp. I can't recall if the shot which hit him was heard or not. But on return to camp everybody in the two gun-teams had their rifles inspected. All the barrels were clean. Not one weapon hadbeen fired. So it was put down to a sniping shot, from heaven knows where. No doubt Cpl. suspected that the shot came from his own men, but why would he think like that? Well, I will tell you a bit about him. He was an outstanding NCO and soldier, always outstandingly clean and smart, with one of those pink complexions which gave the appearance of someone who had recently washed or got out of the bath. Every course he was sent on, small-arms, machine-gun, chemical warfare, education, whatever, he qualified DISTINGUISHED.
He was a regular, hailing from Tipton or West Bromwich, and was due to go far. In fact at one time he was a sergeant, but he was not very popular with the men, because he was a strict disciplinarian, on or off parade. But he wasn't a bully. He knew it all, without being big-headed, and rarely got caught out, but one Christmas Day at Sialkot he was guard commander of the Quarter Guard. In the evening of Christmas Day, someone in authority, I never did know who it was, visited the guardroom and found Sgt. C under the influence of drink. He was relieved, placed in close arrest, and eventually court-martialled. Reduced to corporal, he soldiered on in his extremely efficient manner, and in time he was promoted to sergeant for the second time. A few years after the war, I read in the Daily Mirror one day: "RSM IS SEVERELY REPRIMANDED BY HIS LADY CO". He was then i/c the depot staff at an ATS training establishment commanded by a ATS Colonel. One evening he went out for leisure, but didn't return to his quarters till next morning. Apparently he should have applied for a pass from the CO.
Back to the frontier. On features which had a perma¬nent picquet the troops were accommodated in a sangar, built in a circular fashion around the highest part of the summit, with rocks and boulders carried from the hillsides and the river bed. The walls would be about three feet thick and six feet high, with a firestep constructed round the inside about 18 inches high. At irregular intervals around the top of the wall we would place fair-sized boulders, known as headstones, so that sentries could peer cautiously over the exterior slopes and nullahs. The sangar was encircled by two barbed wire, screw-picket fences, about ten and thirty yards respectively from the sangar wall. We used to hang tin cans, holding stones, on the wire for obvious reasons. The sangar was rarely more than about 12 ft in diameter and a platoon had to remain in it for a week, ten days or sometimes a fortnight. In the middle was an 80 lb tent to house the ammo, and there was a canvas water container called a "Diggi" held in a square metal frame.
The store of water was brought up on mules carrying water panniers on road-opening days. Needless to say we had to use it sparingly. Being the British Army, we had to shave every morning, of course, and an attempt would be made to get a cat-lick type of wash with the shaving water. Hereby hangs another sad little story. There was always a gap in the sangar wall just wide enough for a man to walk through. To protect this gap, a wall was built extending a couple of yards past this gap on both sides. It was appropriately called "the bullet stop". One day Pte Pearson wet his tooth brush and cleaned his teeth. On completion of the brushing, and in the interests of cleanliness and hygiene, he made his way to the sangar entrance and past the bullet stop wall to spit the toothpaste out. Before he could return he was shot dead by a sniper, who must have been in the aim ready to pot at anyone leaving the sangar. After dark they got his body inside and put it on the firestep. It lay there for three days, covered with a blanket, until the next road-opening day, when it would have been taken to a very big perimeter camp near the Afghan border, called Razmak, which was some 14 miles from Razani. The military cemetery was there and all graves were concreted in.
At the time of this incident the sangar platoon commander was Lieut. Hunter, I think, but I am not sure because I wasn't there. The platoon was from 'C' Company. The men who were there told us that the platoon commander called everybody together except the sentries, and said a prayer for Pte. Pearson, who came from my home town of Smethwick. (Pte. W. E. Pearson was killed on 5.7.40.)
I was billeted in this same sangar with my own platoon on another occasion, when a sentry at the wall reported someone trying to get through the outer fence of barbed wire. It was in the early hours, dark, with no moon. Everybody was woken up quietly and told to man the sangar wall as silently as possible. Lt. Faulkner decided to deal with the situation in his own way. He told the platoon sergeant to fire a Very light above the culprit trying to get under the wire, and as soon as the position was illuminated he threw a 36 grenade which rolled down the hillside and failed to detonate. He had forgotten to remove the pin. The grenade could be there to this very day. Anyway it was just as well, because the tribesman turned out to be a porcupine which lifted its head, eyes blinking because of the verey light, then carried on rooting amongst the turf near a barbed wire picket. End of that episode, albeit a happy ending.
On road-opening days several men were sent out to various positions, where they would squat all day, behind self-built stone breast-works, with their eyes peeled, and the safety catch forward with "one up the spout" just in case. And they were withdrawn into the sangar in the afternoon, after the road below was closed. The man on sentry would be in the position for hours and hours, without relief, eyes searching continously, to and fro, up and down, never seeing anything exceptendless hills and mountains, bored stiff, eyes aching, wishing he had never joined up. Yet one had to be "on the ball". The tribesman were no doubt there, somewhere behind the countless bushes and rocks covering this unfriendly landscape. One day it was very hot, sweat running down my neck and arms, no shade except the small amount given to my head by the pith helmet. The drill cloth strap on my wrist watch was soaking wet so I took it all off and put it under a crack in the stone breastwork, out of the sun, meaning to put it back on when I was eventually called back into the sangar at the end of the afternoon. But I forgot to do that, cursing my luck. A watch was a must. It was very useful to check how long or how little one had left to complete one's turn on sentry. It was all sentry duty and patrolling, stand to, stand down. Rarely a full night clear. On next road-opening day about a week later, when we were waiting for a fresh platoon to climb up to us and take over, I got permission to go along the ridge to my position of the previous week and retrieve my watch. Alas, no watch. By that time it could have been sold in some bazaar?
On another road-opening day my platoon was sent to picquet a very high feature, about 8000 ft or more. It was "Camel's Hump" which was mainly a long, curved rising spur which dominated the road below where it had a sharp bend. We knew the layout inside out, having been on it several times. On one side the spur dropped away quite steeply more or less to the level of the road. On the other side was the usual nullah rising to a ridge almost parallel to ours but slightly lower and some three or four hundred yards across from us. This ridge, or spur, was dotted with trees and small bushes. The platoon commander and our sergeant knew the various section positions off by heart, as did the men. All companies and all platoons used the same positions, because they were the best for observation, defence, and the final withdrawal. I can't recall now if we had the old-fashioned four sections to a platoon, four platoons to a company then, or whether we had changed to the modern "three of each". No matter. We were all riflemen except one section which had the LMG, similar to the Bren Gun, called the VB (Vickers Berthier), which the Indian Army had chosen instead of the Bren, though during the course of WW2 they adopted the Bren, the same as the British Army.
More often than not this hill picqueting was uneventful and routine, entailing the usual puffing and panting, cursing and swearing until the men reached the summit. From then on, they knew that there would be eight or nine hours lying or sitting behind self-built rock walls or breastworks, hopefully bullet-proof, doing nothing except remaining alert, eyes peeled, searching, searching, forever searching, slowly from left to right, right to left, up and down, listening for the slightest sound, such as dislodged stones rolling down the slopes. Hence the nervous tension which affected everybody. We always had a regimental signaller with us. He kept in touch with Coy or Bn HQ by means of the Morse Code sent on one flag, not two flags as with Semaphore, as the signaller only need expose the top of his head (from the eyes upward) when sending a message. He would reach up and manipulate the flag by merely raising part of the forearms, enough to make the dots and dashes. I mention this because of the actions of our signaller, Archie Ledington from Ombersley, later on this bad day.
When a platoon withdrew from a position at the end of the day, again, apart from the struggling, running and slipping, a well practised procedure was followed. That is, provided there were no incidents. The platoon commander would withdraw first with the leading section. This was followed by the next section(s) at intervals of a few minutes. This gave them time to form laybacks part way down the slopes, to cover the last section off the top along with the platoon sergeant, and the signaller who would carry on waving his flag to and fro across his body, to let the men below know that he was the last man.
On this day of which I write, the withdrawal procedure was altered slightly. The platoon commander (2/Lieut. Morgan) stayed behind and came down with the last wave (section), while the sergeant went off with the leading section. I was about a hundred and fifty yards from the crest, with my own section which I commanded (unpaid L/Cpl), when we heard prolonged shooting. Back we went, reluctantly, in case our last section was in trouble. Indeed they were! We could see a few men pinned to the ground by fire obviously coming from the nearby spur to ours. We shouted to them to try and crawl back to us while we fired into the opposite slope where the hostiles were hidden. They could have been there in position before dawn, waiting patiently for the opportunity to ambush the last troops to withdraw. We had to keep our heads down, but when the word was passed back that our officer had been hit and couldn't move we knew we were in serious trouble. No person, dead or wounded was left behind intentionally, because of the custom of hostile tribesmen of torturing and/or mutilating. Our Colonel once told us in a lecture that, if needs be, he would counter-attack with the whole Battalion to retrieve the dead body of one of our men.
This ambush was very difficult to extricate ourselves from. The terrain was steep and rocky and the slightest movement drew fire from the enemy. They certainly had us cornered. Our signaller, Archie Ledington, worked his way to the side of the hill facing the road. It was amazing he wasn't hit. At the time, a column of troops from Razmak (RAZ COL), possibly a brigade or at least two infantry battalions, were passing along this road andour signaller, on his own initiative, waved his flag and made contact. I take it that he signalled a message informing them of the situation, because, after about half-an-hour, some Sikh troops came in sight, commanded by a British officer, who must have weighed up the situation quickly. Native units did frequent tours on the frontier and, to be fair, they were good, very experienced men, unruffled, taking it in their stride.
Razmak to Bannu mail truck with arned tribesmen on top
They didn't go over the top, though but lined up with us, just below the crest. Orders were shouted to the men pinned down on top, to make their way to us as soon as rapid fire was opened along the spur occupied by the hostiles. The Sikhs brought two LMGs up which must have done more to make the hostiles keep their heads down than our rifles. They were a godsend, enabling the men to come off the top, but it seemed to take a lifetime. Three chaps carried the officer, and a fourth carried three rifles in addition to his own, but they made it. We took Mr Morgan and got him on a stretcher.
He was in a bad way, hit in the back, and the bullet had come out of the left side of his chest, leaving an open wound which looked more like a shrapnel injury. I think the lung was showing and he was bleeding very badly. A field dressing was useless, and none of us were medics. We thought the best thing was to get him down to the road, which was a few thousand feet below. That was an awful job, because we couldn't carry the stretcher down the slope, so we slid it down, bumping and jolting, and there were seven or eight men doing their best. We made it, after what seemed forever. All our knees and elbows were rubbed raw, bared to the sinew, hands cut and bleeding. Yet it was nothing to the way our officer was suffering, made worse by our rough handling of the stretcher by us, but we knew that we had to get him down to an MO with all haste. The poor chap frequently told us to put him down and leave him. He was taken from us at the bottom of "Camel's Hump", and from then on I don't know how they got him back along the road to our perimeter camp. Could have been by mule, or camel dhoolie, or even native motor transport. Sadly he died that night in the medical tent which was called the field ambulance. (2/Lieut. J. W. Morgan died 12.8.40).
Pte. Lee, a member of the ill-fated rear section, had been hit in the upper arm. I suppose it would be classed as an ordinary wound. However, before it healed up, gangrene set in and they took his arm off. Eventually he was sent home and discharged to "civvy street". He was a native of Tipton and a few years ago, at a reunion, I asked some old comrades from the same town if they knew how he was getting on. They said that he had been found lying dead just inside the front door of his house, where he lived by himself.
There is a bit more to this little story; you could say it was the climax to it. With the aftermath of the ambush, the shock, fear, and the physical ordeal of the descent, even for fit young men, much to our shame nobody had looked around to see if all were present. There was only one thing in our minds, to get back to the comparative safety of the perimeter camp. We fell in and marched back. Once inside, the roll was called, which was the norm, along with arms inspection. There was a man missing! He was Pte Gardner, a young lad from Worcester. A thorough search was made of the latrines, the canteen tent, in fact the whole camp. To no avail. By this time the road had been closed, with all picquets except permanent ones withdrawn into the perimeter camp. Here I should explain that we had some tribal levies called Khassadars in camp. They were Pathans, employed by the Army to do a bit of picqueting, patrolling and investigating. They were issued with rifles and ammo, and paid, but they didn't wear uniforms, only plain native clothing. Most of them carried full leather bandoliers across the chest.
Well, the disappearance of Pte. Gardner was resolved by a party of these Khassadars going out to the "Camel's Hump". He was found dead from a shot in the back of the neck or head, and he had fallen into the mullah on the enemy side of the spur occupied by us. It was taken for granted that Khassadars couldn't be really trusted and that they had negotiated with their kinsmen, the hostiles, for the return of Pte. Gardner's body. It was carried back to the perimeter camp, tied to the branch of a tree. We watched from the perimeter wall as they came in sight along the road, with the body swinging from the branch which was carried between two Khassadars, on their shoulders. Fortunately he hadn't been mutilated. Perhaps the Khassadars got to the scene before the hostiles had got around to their grisly work, and then, perhaps, it was a bit of give and take, "honour among thieves"? The hostiles kept his rifle. A Short Lee-Enfield was considered to be almost priceless by tribesmen. They also kept the webbing equipment with bayonet, and his sandals. Troops were allowed to wear these on the frontier. Much better than army boots for climbing, these 'chaplis' were made by the regimental boot repairer; they were comfortable and very durable, but men had to purchase their own. (Pte. L. A. Gardner was killed on 12.8.40.) A small incident fits in here, which, although it could have been fatal, had a happy ending, apart from the 14 days' CB which the Colonel dished out to the culprit concerned. As soon as companies got back to their own lines in camp, after road protection duties, there would be a roll call followed by an arms inspection, at platoon level. I well remember one afternoon: we stood to attention in two ranks and were given the order "For inspection Port Arms" (safetycatch forward, cut-off out, bolt open). Followed by "Ease Springs", which meant working the bolt back¬wards and forwards until the mag was empty. Then it was "Cut-off in, close the bolt, press trigger, apply safety catch", followed by the command "Order Arms". I don't suppose men ever forget that drill, especially infantry-men. In the front rank of our platoon stood two men side by side, a good example of 'the long and short of it'. Pte. Barton was well over six feet and on his right was Pte Owens, a very small Welshman, not much over five feet in height. We all stood there "at the Port", easing springs, when there was an unexpected loud bang. Somehow or other Owens finished with one up the spout. He closed the bolt and pressed the trigger. The bullet knocked Barton's pith helmet off and actually passed through it without touching him. I wonder if Barton kept that pith-helmet as a souvenir? Owen was placed under close arrest and marched to the guard-tent, as expected.
We did occasionally have things take place, which, though potentially very serious or even dangerous, nevertheless ended up without harm being done. One day we did an exercise in the Razani area, with the battalion on "column", moving along very slowly, with the advance-guard sending picquets up left and right to protect the flanks of the main body; after it had passed through, the rear guard called the picquets down to rejoin the main body. All done in proper sequence, and by means of the signaller's flag and the Morse Code. LCpl Rushton (soon to be busted down to Private) was ordered to take his section and picquet a certain feature. This was done by the use of a Pointer Staff held by an officer (usually the company commander). It was made up from a couple of black metal bars, each with a foresight and backsight, which opened up like a "V" and was pointed at the feature to be picqueted. The section commander, or sometimes platoon commander, had to look over the OC's right shoulder, along the sights of the right hand bar, and he could see the same feature as indicated by the officer actually holding the Pointer Staff. (A few years ago I presented a Pointer Staff to RHQ for the Museum. This was on behalf of an old comrade now resident in a Veterans (ex-servicemen's) Home in Hamilton, New Zealand). Well, L/Cpl. Rushton had a "look-see" over the OC's right shoulder, stated that he had "Got it, Sir", and off he went with his merry men. Now, in addition to the leading man who wore an orange-coloured apron on his back once the ascent had begun, when the section was established on the top out would come an orange-coloured screen. It was a rectangular piece of cloth about 3 ft x 2 ft, with a rounded stick, with a metal-shod point, sewn into each side. The pointed ends of the sticks were six inches longer than the screen depth, so that they could be knocked into the ground, or, if that was too hard or rocky, the screen could be propped up facing the column proceeding below in the valley or river bed. As the main body wound its way slowly, the screen had to be moved around the hillside facing the column which always carried a large red flag on a long pole. Anyway, an hour passed, then another half hour, and finally two hours went by and still no sign of Rushton. The CO, 2IC, the Adjutant and the RSM discussed the situation with our Company Commander, and we could see that they were very concerned. The outcome was another section being sent out to occupy the original feature. They accomplished it in about 45 minutes without incident and they signalled back that an orange screen was visible from their position. It was observed high up on another feature some miles away. There was hell to pay, because Rushton had gone much too far, miles past his objective, completely unsupported, out of touch, and isolated.
Newspaper article at the time
The Battalion moved more or less at a snail's pace. It was the same with all units on column. To cover five or six miles in a day was considered to be an average distance, with some sections or platoons going up on picquet twice, and even three times. It was most ex-hausting, to say the least. (Many of us expressed our feelings of near hopelessness, and wonder, in our ignorance and frustration, over why the British wasted time and money on such a godforsaken hole as the frontier. Why not build a high wall across the border line?) On this occasion the column advanced sufficiently to be able to contact LCpl Rushton's position by a signaller and he was given the order to withdraw. The code which was signalled by flag, in morse, was RTU. We often pulled Rushton's leg about this episode, even long after¬wards at post-war reunions, accusing him of trying to desert to Afghanistan. He always insisted that he went to the correct feature as directed. He came from West Bromwich and I spotted him in Birmingham city centre about a year ago. Unfortunately I was passing on a bus and he was walking in the other direction, so we never met.
A quick word about Archie Ledington, the signaller on "Camel's Hump". Everybody present at that ambush agreed that because of his prompt action and initiative in trying to get help from RAZ COL (RAZMAK COLUMN) he deserved some recognition. There was also a good chance that he had been under enemy observation at some time, if only partly, during his action. However, we lost our officer, and the platoon sergeant was down below with the first section to withdraw, so Archie missed out, as so often happens in action for various reasons. Just before "D" Day he was sent as a member of an 80-strong draft from the 1st Battalion to re-inforce a battalion of the Warwicks. He went across with them on "D" Day, and luckily survived the war. Sadly, about fifteen years ago he gradually went queer; I think they said it was mental deterioration, and it was a blessing that he passed on after a few years in that unstable position. So is it any wonder that I count my blessings at seventy-eight and a half, with arthritis and bad feet thrown in for good measure?
Sergeant Denis Price (5242579) with some tribesmen near Bannu