Flight Lieutenant W.C Brown Signals Officer RAF Waddington 1941-42
Flight Lieutenant Bill Brown is quite a remarkable man with an extraordinary history. Despite becoming a centenarian on 19 November 2011, he is an active member of the 44 Squadron Association, still drives his car and is a member of Twickenham Rugby Club for which he used to play.
He has always craved excitement and adventure, never being afraid to take the occasional risk. Whilst serving as a Signals Officer at RAF Waddington during WWII, Bill couldn’t help thinking that more adventure was available elsewhere so he readily replied to a notice calling for volunteers for ‘Special Signals Duties under training’. These duties would eventually lead to Bill playing an integral part in Operation Torch – The British-American invasion of Northern Africa in November 1942. At his birthday celebration in the Officers’ Mess, organised by the 44 Sqn Association in 2011, Bill recounted the following vivid recollection of his adventure after he left RAF Waddington:
Within two weeks of applying, Bill was on his way to Scotland to join HMS Dundonald, a shore based establishment near Troon. Confusingly, the naval unit was located at an Army Camp; he had to wear khaki uniform for training and the whole project he was involved in was very secret. In the following few months, Bill became the Commanding Officer of Signals Section B of Advanced Landing Group 1 (ALG1); a team of 22 men comprising 1 Flight Sergeant, 1 Sergeant and 20 Airmen, all signals specialists. They all received training in ‘hand to hand’ fighting; tough route marching, bayonet fighting and learning to drive any sort of vehicle. Map reading and setting up camps in remote areas of Scotland featured large in their training. It became obvious that they would be taking part in a landing somewhere. A landing at Dieppe in August had turned into a disaster costing many lives and a great deal of equipment, so it was unlikely to be mainland Europe.
After more intensive training, which included simulated landings on enemy beaches, they proceeded to Belfast where they were transferred to USS Leedstown, a former American luxury liner. They shared the ship with US soldiers who were to be part of the operation. Sadly, they weren’t accommodated in any sort of luxury but crowded together in considerable discomfort, some of the US men living in extremely cramped conditions down in the bilges. Following further beach landing exercises with the American troops they joined a massive convoy which was forming off the Firth of Clyde and set sail on 12 October. Their route took them north through the Western Approaches and then west almost as far as Newfoundland through some extremely cold waters. There was very little U-boat activity in these cold waters. However, when they turned south the attacks started. They were harassed day and night by the U-boats with an almost constant sound of depth charges exploding. At times the Leedstown was committed to violent weaving manoeuvres which, in rough weather, made life very uncomfortable.
Eventually, after they had been sailing for about three weeks it became clear that their landing would be on a part of Africa – but where? At last orders were issued which showed that their assault would be on the French Algerian coast at a point just east of Algiers. Bill’s section’s task was to establish beachhead communications and then proceed to Maison Blanche, the main airfield serving Algiers. It was vital that this airfield was captured as a base for our own aircraft. The war in North Africa was not going well and it seemed sensible to push the Germans from the west.
After heading through the Straits of Gibraltar, their ship survived many attacks both from submarines and aircraft. Eventually, they started the assault on 8 November during which Bill’s section came under fierce attack from Vichy French and Foreign Legion forces. Fortunately, there were some French Resistance in the area and they helped in clearing the way. After overcoming the defences the Beachhead communications system was set up and some of Bill’s team were able to move on to Maison Blanche which had been taken by the assault forces. There was still very considerable bombing and strafing by German and Italian aircraft – this went on for many days until British fighters from Gibraltar could be based at Maison Blanche and repel the attacks.
Before the landing commenced, and his team had been issued with special currency for use by the Allied forces. They left their own money and all their other non essential possessions on the USS Leedstown. The day after they landed, the Leedstown was sunk and they were left with just what they were wearing!
Bill was then tasked with setting up a communications post at Souk el Arba airfield, about 20 miles inside Tunisia. This meant a journey of some 300 miles across the Atlas Mountains on twisting and dangerous mountain roads, passing through villages where the locals seemed friendly. They started the journey in convoy with others involved in establishing the Advanced Landing Ground but one of the vehicles broke down and it was decided that the convoy would not abandon it. Bill and his team had to push on ahead on their own, secure in the belief that the Allied army will be up ahead and will have taken the Souk el Arba airfield. It was thought that the rest of the convoy would soon catch up with them. So now they were on their own – just 2 vehicles and 22 men.
A French officer they met pointed the route to the airfield, but they still hadn’t heard or seen anything of the main Allied force. Eventually they reached the site of the Advanced Landing Ground and set up camp. It was the next day before the main Allied forces reached them and it was then that Bill realised that he and his team had been the vanguard of the Allied entry into Tunisia, with the German forces only 10 miles ahead of them. The date was 18 November, only 10 days after the landing on the beaches.
A Communication Centre was set up and the remainder of the convoy joined them on the following day. The airfield was prepared as well as possible for the arrival of three Spitfires which flew in the following day, and then the bombing and strafing by German aircraft began in earnest. The Germans dropped hundreds of butterfly bombs which caused great damage. The Spitfires were a great help in tackling the bombers but they were also needed in support of the front line forces.
Bad weather interrupted the enemy air attacks but, on 22 November, Bill had to witness the death of one of his men and the wounding of several others through bombing and strafing. The dead man, being a Muslim, had to be buried within 24 hours; he was buried locally with as much dignity as possible. Bill’s tent was destroyed in the strafing and he was forced to sleep out on the ground without much cover. He awoke one morning to find himself lying in a puddle which was a few inches deep. Clean and dry clothes were out of the question. The only way to dry his clothes was on the radiator of his truck.
After setting up a Communication Centre at Souk el Arba, and suffering the torment of frequent air raids, Bill was directed to reconnoitre another Advanced Landing Ground about 10 miles from the front line. By this time, the unit had acquired a Matchless motorbike which Bill found very useful. With two of his team, they loaded the truck with equipment (and the Matchless) and set off for the front.
The journey was quite chaotic, the road being full of vehicles heading towards the front and under almost constant air attack. When they arrived at the chosen spot they found it to be totally unsuitable as a forward landing ground but they still suffered air attacks, presumably because the Germans thought they might be trying to establish it as a landing ground.
Things had not been going too well for the Allies and Bill was ordered to return with his men to the base at Souk el Arba. He decided, rather on the spur of the moment, to have a look at the southern part of the front line. He sent his men back in the truck, telling them that he wouldn’t be long before returning. He then headed south on his motorbike avoiding the main roads and using mule tracks. On his journey he passed through many villages which had been completely destroyed by shelling and bombing, with bodies lying by the roadside, scenes which he will never forget.
His route took him through a pass with a high ridge on either side. He decided to have a closer look at the pass as a possible route for the Axis forces to use. To do this, he parked his motorbike in a sheltered spot away from prying eyes, and climbed the ridge to have a closer look at the area. It was then that he heard the sound of car engines and a German car and a van drove into view in the pass. They parked and two officers got out of the car. Bill thought that he had better move on and he slowly edged his way back from the ridge towards his bike. Unfortunately, he was spotted and captured by a scout.
He was taken to the officers who questioned him at length but all they got from him was the usual, name, rank and number. Then they became angry and started beating him. At one point the officer stamped on his foot causing extreme pain which stayed with him for many weeks. Eventually, realising that they would get no information from Bill, the officers left to continue their recce, leaving Bill guarded by one soldier.
Bill was now very worried. He was on an unauthorised route back to his base, had been captured and now had valuable information about a possible route which the Germans might use to break through the Allied line. He tried to think of ways to escape. He was now sitting outside the van with his guard a few feet away, carrying a rifle trained on Bill.
After some time, he indicated that he would welcome a cigarette. His guard thought about it and threw a packet to Bill. He took one out and threw the packet back to the guard, ensuring that the packet fell a few feet short of him. The guard leaned forward to pick it up and this was Bill’s chance. In spite of his very painful foot, he leapt forward; catching the guard unawares and they both tumbled onto the ground. Bill managed to grab a rock which he used to smash on the guards face which knocked him unconscious. Bill disabled the van and managed to hobble, with some difficulty, back to his motorbike and continued on his unauthorised journey.
His next encounter was with Free French Forces on their part of the front line. He managed to convince them that, in spite of his dishevelled appearance, he was an RAF officer and informed them of the German scout’s position. They then passed this information back to their headquarters. Bill stayed the night with them, enjoying the luxury of a bed of straw. The next day he arrived back at his base at Souk el Arba.
His Commanding Officer was not a happy man and said that Bill could have been charged with being absent without leave. To save himself any embarrassment, Bill kept to himself details of his encounter with the German advance party and fobbed off any questions about his injured foot. However, the news which he had given to the French about the German positions had alerted the Force Headquarters and steps were taken to shore up that part of the front.
Serious changes were taking place at his base. American forces were arriving en masse with a force of Boston bombers and Bill’s section was being run down in preparation for a handover to a permanent signals unit. When this was completed, Bill and his 15 men found a beautiful spot in the Tunisian hills where they were able to enjoy a heavenly rest for a few days, away from the bombing and strafing which had been almost constant for some two months. They maintained contact with their base and eventually orders came that Bill was to report to Command HQ, some 50 miles west, for further instructions.
After a tiring motorbike journey during which he was splattered with mud, he arrived at the HQ and, just as he parked his Matchless, it burst into flame; the end of his faithful bike. His sartorial condition was such that he had a difficult job in convincing the Duty Officer that he really was a RAF officer and that he was expected. After bathing and being given a new set of battledress he met the CO. He was told that his unit would be broken up and the men sent individually to other units, as required. This was a very sad time for Bill. He and his team had been through a lot together. They had a great sense of duty and were congratulated on what they had achieved in their work under very difficult circumstances.
So ended Bill’s part in Operation Torch; it seems that his team had been held in high regard and they received much praise for the work that they had done at Souk al Arba, which had been more important and significant than Bill had at the time thought.