5. North Africa

History tells us that the El Alamein allied offensive started in Egypt late in October 1942. Within a month Rommel was reported to be in retreat signaling a full scale invasion of Northern Africa. By the 30th of November British airborne troops had fought their way through to a certain airstrip at Oudna just 15 miles south of Tunis. It then took until May to capture Tunis itself and the port of Bizerta. Prime Minister Churchill was eager to split the Nazi war machine into as many fronts as possible. The taking of Northern Africa created an air-head from which the allies could now mount an assault northwards into Europe through Italy.

Stephen is noted as attending both 311 Ferry Training Unit and 21 Operational Training Unit on 22nd July 1943. Documents show that both units were based at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. No 21 OTU operated Wellingtons providing an eight week course with 55 flying hours. No 311 FTU also operated Wellingtons and trained 30 crews at a time on courses lasting for 14 days. Associated with No 311 FTU was the Overseas Air Delivery Flight or OADF whose role was to prepare aircraft for overseas delivery. The OADF was based at Kemble, just 30 miles from Moreton-in-Marsh.

Stephen's record shows that he was on "attachment" to North Africa on 12th August. The term attachment would normally imply a period of temporary service. The next day he is, however, shown to be posted to 142 Squadron Near East Air Force. In Shawn Doyle's book Grandpa's War [20] he describes how Bill's aircraft had routed first westerly into the Atlantic before turning south over the Bay of Biscay to hopefully avoid Luftwaffe patrols. Their route continued to the west of neutral Portugal and then east into the Mediterranean landing at an airstrip at Ras El Mas in Morocco. It is known that other aircraft flying from Britain to Tunisia also staged through Gibraltar. In the event, Bill's aircraft was held at Ras El Mas for 5 days awaiting the attention of engineers. Stephen would seem to have had a similar experience as, although his record suggests his posting to 142 Squadron on the 12/13th of August, it was not until 2nd September that 142 Squadron's records showed his arrival at Kairouan in Tunisia in company with crew members Sgt Betts (pilot), Sgt Hurnell (navigator), Sgt Bowman (wireless operator) and Sgt Yatton (rear gunner). One other crew arrived on the same day but the identity of the two aircraft in which they travelled is not recorded.

Before Stephen, and three members of his crew, could commence operations, he was to fall pray to the disease jaundice. Two weeks after arriving in Tunisia, he wrote a letter to his parents:

 

    17.9.43                                                                                                                                     991606 Sgt Smith

                                                                                                                                                         142 Squadron

                                                                                                                                                                 B.N.A.F

    My Dearest Mother and Dad

    I am sorry there has been rather a lapse in my letter writing but I am in hospital at the moment with jaundice. Several of the fellows are also down with it including three of my crew.  I had been feeling poorly for some time and apparently jaundice was the cause.

    I am much better today however although feeling very weak as I cannot touch fats at all which excludes most things out here where there is no fresh vegetables or fruit (apart from occasional melons).

    I have received my shirts and shorts and am at the moment sitting on my bed wearing one of the shirts, it is lovely and cool.

    Do you think you could manage to send me some sort of Christmas parcel because I should thoroughly appreciate it if you could, although I fully realize how difficult it is for you getting things for yourselves and I shouldn't like you to go without.

    Perhaps you could make a little cake of something, as we never see anything in that line, or some biscuits would be nice. Pickles and sauces are non existent here so are pastes and Bovril and Marmite.We get plenty of cigarettes and don't do badly with jam but would love some milk chocolate and boiled sweets. You have no idea what a difference a little sauce makes to endless spam and tinned sausages.

    I certainly cannot grumble at the food here considering everything and I contend the cook does amazingly well with limited and monotonous resources, but one does get so fed up with the same thing day after day.

    We occasionally get custard tart, made with tinned milk and really the cook does wonders with the pastry, I honestly don't know how he does some of the things.

    The great shortage in fresh milk, vegetables and fruit, nothing can make up for lack of these, we only see dried prunes and apricots and these are pretty rare. Well anyway if you can spare any of the aforementioned, particularly anything in the cake variety or tarts that you can put in a tin, you might send them to me. Money is no good to me at the moment and I am saving about 3 a week.

    We do manage to get fresh eggs occasionally from the Arabs which is a great help.

    I certainly never wish to see this country again when the war is over, not even on a Cook's tour. Of all the filthy, evil smelling, dung ridden, fly infested, God forsaken extremities so called civilization, this takes the cake. I could say more but no nations mentioned, no packdrill and no blue pencil.

    How I long to see Switzerland again and the clean fresh mountains and lakes that go with it. I have a little book here called "Things seen in Switzerland" which I bought in Cheltenham before I left England.  It is full of photographs and describes every part of this wonderful country.  I read it over and over again and hope that one day when the war is over we will all of us go there again together for a holiday.

    You know I have been thinking quite a lot during the last few months and I am beginning to believe that several things will have to be altered when the war is over, I believe I am acquiring a new set of value in life.  Things which previously have seemed of vital importance to me no longer seem important, yet other things, particularly my home and family have become everything.  I have never been the homesick type, on the contrary if I have stayed at home for ten consecutive minutes I believe it was accepted as something of a phenomena.  Well I have certainly never missed home like I miss it now and I only hope and pray that God will see fit to let me come through this war that I may in some small way be able to repay my Dear Mother and Dad for all they have done for me.

Cheer must go now

Your loving son

Stephen

 

There is no further mention of Sgt Yatton associated with Stephen's crew so it is likely that the three crew members that Stephen mentions in his letter as also suffering from jaundice were Sgt Betts, Sgt Hurnell and Sgt Bowman.

The untimely outbreak of jaundice can probably be explained by an appendix to the Operations Record Book for RAF Moreton-in Marsh signed by the Senior Medical Officer [13].