World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Adrian Hughes 

MY PILGRIMAGE TO LIBYA, THE LAST RESTING PLACE OF MY UNCLE,

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: WILLIAM RICHARD (DICK) WROOT, d. 9.12.41, age 24
Location of story: North Africa
Background to story: Army

                                                                                                                   Dick Wroot

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anne Payne of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Mr. Adrian Hughes.


By ADRIAN HUGHES.

I’d learned quite a bit about my uncle as I was growing up, and my grandmother had always kept letters from him and photos and other keep-sakes, so there was quite a lot of information in the family. This is what we knew:-

My uncle Dick was a joiner for Wath-on-Dearne brewery before the war, but when war was declared, he went to join up like everyone else and had wanted to go in the RAF, but was turned down because of his eye-sight. Then, early in 1941, he was called up to go to North Africa, as part of the Royal Artillery, Fourth Regiment. He went first to Watford barracks for some training and then had two weeks’ leave. He set off from Vicar Rd., Wath-on-Dearne, which was the family home, to the station and caught a train for Watford, via Doncaster. According to his letters, just as they were approaching Watford Station there was an air-raid and a gas station caught fire.

After two days at Watford barracks, which seemed to be a bit of a collecting centre, they set off for Liverpool docks, where there were troops parading on the quay-side, with a band playing. As it was too dangerous to travel to North Africa by sailing through the Mediterranean, they set sail for the South Atlantic in order to go round the Cape of Good Hope. His letters told how 90 per cent of the troops were sea-sick for days. Once they’d rounded the Cape, they put into port on the East Coast of South Africa where the locals volunteered to put them up for a few days. This was partly to help the troops to acclimatise, and my uncle stayed with a family called Chapman.

Eventually, they reached Cairo where they were based in a large camp for two weeks. He wrote home saying that the tropical uniform that had been supplied to them was not really suitable for the temperatures, so they were allowed to buy their own light clothes, which they wore when they were off-duty. Because of that, he was always short of funds, and sent home for some money to be sent out to him. They weren’t allowed to send home any pictures of any of the places they visited on the journey in case they could be identified by the enemy.

Soon after this, they were on the move once more, but this time going along the Mediterranean Coast past Alexandria to a place called Sidi Rezegh, and were based at a nearby air-field. (The name means Wise-man Rezegh and is the place of his tomb.) Uncle Dick was with F Troop 7 Btn. 4th. Royal Horse Artillery at that stage and they were on 25 pounder Italian guns. Their job was to protect the air-field from German Panzer attacks, and the air-field was there to protect Tobruk from attack. Life must have been very boring for much of the time in between battles, and they became very good at improvising, for example, they made use of any equipment lying around, like an old petrol can which they made into a frying pan for cooking over an open fire.

In the end, Dick was in the Crusader Battle at Sidi Rezegh and was fatally wounded at the beginning of December. He died on 9th, having been hit by shrapnel on the side of the temple and he never regained consciousness. From reading up about the war, I think my uncle would have been one of those that they felt they couldn’t do anything for, and as they only treated the ones they believed would survive, he would just have been put in the shade and left. My older sister and my brother can just remember the policeman coming to the door to tell my Grandma that he’d been killed, and remembers that there was a lot of upset in the family for days after that.


When the British Legion arranged a pilgrimage to Libya in April of 2002, several of us felt this was an opportunity that would never come again. It was the year of the 60th. Anniversary of El Alamein, and my brother and I went with 27 other pilgrims, plus a courier, a Dr. (who was a veteran himself) and a standard bearer from the British Legion. No-one else in the family wanted to go, and my Grandmother had never wanted to visit because she’d never accepted he was dead.

We travelled along the North African Coast, and all through that area, it was like time had stood still since WW2. There were remnants of tyres, bully-beef cans, and every so often we’d come across a rusting pile of cans by the road-side - bits of guns near Tobruk, old ammunition boxes, used bullets on the floor of the air-field, and we even found some live ammunition outside the German Cemetery near Tobruk Harbour. Some farmers in the desert had used a number of the ammunition boxes for fences to keep in their sheep and chickens, but apart from that, Tobruk hadn’t altered since the war. All the big guns and machinery had been removed, but everything else was just left as it was. (At the border, we were slightly alarmed to see women and young guys running across a field, taking quantities of things to sell, including drugs, and learned that they were taking terrible risks as some had lost limbs from the land mines that still remained in the ground.) We were also shown the place where the Germans had taken 35,000 prisoners in Tobruk and put them into compounds with no shade and no food or water. Those who survived were sent to Italy eventually.

We found the rock grave where my uncle was first buried, and learned that they couldn’t dig a grave out there because the land was too stoney, so they just wrapped him in his blanket and piled up rocks on top. He stayed there till after the war when all the bodies were collected and moved them to war grave cemeteries. We were surprised to find that he wasn’t buried in the Sidi Rezegh cemetery, but in the one at Halfaya Sollum in Egypt (on the borders with Libya). This was because the Sidi Rezegh cemetery was only a small one and had obviously filled up very quickly, so he was moved just over the border along with many others. It was a sobering trip, but I’m glad we went.


Pr-BR