World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                       Charlie Parsons 

Looking Back

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Charlie Parsons
Location of story: Leeds, Catterick, Alexandria, Egypt, Northern Syria, Taranto, Italy
Unit name: 12th Royal Lancers
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Charlie Parsons.

Looking Back

Charlie Parsons

It was Friday night, midsummer 1939. I was in a cinema in a Leeds suburb (this was normal for a Friday Night), someone was calling my name in a stage whisper. "Go to the front office," it said. War was about to be declared and I had been 'called up'.

To explain:
I was a Territorial Soldier with the 45 Tank Regiment in Leeds; I went to work during the day and did my soldiering in my spare time. We were referred to as the `TERRIERS' or `PART TIME SOLDIERS'. This system still applies, there are Terriers serving in many parts of the world today. I joined the T.A. when I was fourteen years of age and served for nearly two years in the West York's Regiment as a Signaller. The regiment changed to TANKS early in 1939. We had to retrain to take on this quite new role.

Think of it, no more walking (marching 4 miles in 50 minutes, then to have to do it again!). Now we could ride.

I became a Wireless Operator and Gunner with this change, and found my earlier experience came in useful, as I had been taught to read MORSE CODE (10 words a minute) over the wireless. I could fire most guns and now would learn about tactics. However, as I said in the beginning, I had been appointed as a Company Clerk. We were an advanced party, organising the bringing together of the unit because of the war situation. After about 5 or 6 months, I was informed by my Sergeant that I was to be sent home, the unit was being sent to France, but due to me being under 18 years old, I wasn't allowed to go abroad. I was placed in the Z Reserve and would be called to the army forthwith when reaching the age of 18.

On March 7th 1941, I became a Trooper at the 56 Training RAC Catterick. (I've never known a colder place). They made me up to a Lance Corporal and I was put in charge of a unit of 30 men, all from civilian life. With hindsight, I think 1 was too young for such a responsibility, but it worked out.

I was then given the job of Drill Assistant, helping the Drill Sergeant on the square. From there I was posted to the Cavalry, the `27th LANCERS'. This regiment was banded solely for a war footing and then disbanded when a conflict ceased. So soldiers were brought in from all over the country to form this new regiment, basically the 12th Royal Lancers, then the Welsh Regiment, Derbyshire Yeomanry Training Regiments etc.

We were to begin this great new adventure in North Yorkshire, near Malton; we had Humber Armoured Cars, Daimler Armoured Cars, Scout Cars the lot (we were away). I still remained a Wireless Operator Gunner and I was with the Regiment until it was disbanded after the cessation of hostilities. I went to the 12th Royal Lancers as Sergeant.
After a very busy period in England, learning the rudiments of our trade, preparations were made to go overseas. At the latter end of 1943 we boarded the `Stirling Castle' at the dock of Liverpool. The day was very cold and it was snowing. The ship was a cruise liner, which was stripped and refurbished as a troop carrier. We travelled down the Atlantic in convoy, the days were grey, not a lot to do. In the Bay of Biscay, it became so rough, even the ship's crew was sick. Submarine alert and the abandoning of the convoy got us through to Gibraltar. I remember at night the lights on the coast as we had lived in a blackout for some years. We pulled into Alexandria in Egypt, some two weeks after leaving Liverpool. It was raining believe it or not.

The job we got as a regiment was the upkeep of the `CARDBOARD DIVISION', a dummy diversion, cotton tents, false vehicles tanks etc., all arranged in 2l3 square miles of desert, which from the air, gave an impression of a concentrated gathering of troop formation. Our role was to patrol the area to add movement and show dust trails of a possible convoy on the North African coast road. Submarines of cast concrete were placed in the TOBRUK Harbour. Guard mountings were added to give authenticity to the scene. The effect of this of course was to bring attention from Europe as to the 2nd Front. A game of bluff was taking place.

I was then sent to Palestine in a policing situation. The IRGUN ZVAI LUMI and the HA.GANAH (the Jewish and Arab opposing groups) were at loggerheads. We then went up to the Turkish border to relieve a Black African Regiment, that was down with Malaria. This area of Northern Syria was known as a malaria area. The mosquitoes bit during the day, which is quite unusual. The job we were required to do here was to watch Turkey, the 8th Army were aware of the possibility of a Russian Force coming that way.

At this point, we were given orders to join the 8th Army Forces in Italy. We boarded a ship from India at Port Said and landed at Taranto on the toe of Italy, some three days later. The cars were unloaded and we travelled north. The tyres an the cars had to be shielded from the heat of the sun; at halts they were inclined to explode.

It was very interesting travelling through places like Assisi, the home of St. Francis.
Casino was devastation, the Monastery on the mountain. So much to see. We travelled to the mountains (middle of the country) where we commenced our real job, the job we were trained for.

A word here about what we actually did:
We were reconnaissance people, there to find things out, working in front of the main 8th Army Force, our patrols would send or bring back information about the enemy positions, the state of the land, assess if the rivers and ditches were obstacles? What bridges existed intact? Where were the German Observation Posts? Anything that would help the advance of the main force.

Finding that the cars were not suitable for the task in hand, due to the extreme terrain, and with steep mountains, narrow paths and carriageways only fit for carts, we had to walk.

A patrol consisted of any number of men, it could be from just two to a troop of ten according to the job in hand. We were perched on a mountain side in a village called Pietra Lungha (Pietra Limga) and after a visit to the Squadron Headquarters, would be briefed for our daily task. We could be walking anything up to 8-10 miles, to give you an idea. The first job was to find out if a certain village church was being used by the Germans as an Observation Post, and pick up any other information that might be useful, then we would walk all the way back. This was one role, there were numerous others. In cars, we operated on roads as scouts; the object was still to probe and find out. This sort of life carried me into Austria where we met the Russian Army.

We returned to England for 4 weeks leave (we had been away for 2 years) and then were sent back to Austria and later posted to Palestine, which was another Police job.

I became a Civilian in the autumn of 1946.




THE BRIDGE - Approach to the River Po

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Charlie Parsons, Lt Colonel H Porter, Popsky, Ernest Schofield, Lancer Trooper Greetham, Corporal Jack Conolley
Location of story: Po Valley, Italy, Ravenna
Unit name: No. 2 Troop of `D' Squadron the 27th Lancers, Cavalry Regiment
Background to story: Army                                                         


Approach to the River Po

Charlie Parsons

The Bridge didn't have a lot going for it. It looked unimpressive possibly because all the surrounding country, the Po Valley had been flooded by the Tedeski (German) to delay the advancing 8th Army which it did. It was a flat land like the Fens in the Lincolnshire area of eastern England. Dykes had been blown and acres and acres were now underwater. The river itself could be seen by the currents it created making its way through the flood.

We were a troop of 12/14 men No. 2 Troop of `D' Squadron the 27th Lancers, a Cavalry Regiment made up at the start of 1941, from some 12th Royal Lancers, Derbyshire Yeomanry, and Welsh Regiment etc. We were trained as a reconnaissance force; we were quite adaptable, working in Armoured Fighting Vehicles and on foot. The Gothic Line was most awkward for the operational use of cars and we did all our patrols on foot. The plain north of Ravenna was quite extensive and we looked forward to getting back in our cars. The German astutely flooded the plain. We were to continue on foot.

Two troop entered Ravenna around the 5th December 1944. It was officially taken accordingly to the powers that be on this date. Ravenna was unoccupied, we found the opposition had withdrawn and had left the roads littered with mines.

The 6th December using two Daimler Scout Cars saw us going forward on the road north, a minor sort of road very like a country road at home, our destination was the bridge where we were to play a waiting game. We occupied a house some 50 yards up stream from the bridge and the road. It was decided by our Lieutenant after some discussion to dig a Slit trench on the far side, the north side of the bridge, against the wishes of most of us. It meant that if attacked in strength, the escape route from that forward position would be difficult because the bridge would have to be crossed to get back. Another trench was dug at this side, the south side, which we didn't use, remember that by this time it was completely dark and the forward trench was to be used by two of us and a Bren Gun. This latter trench would be manned at first light the next morning. A further factor in the situation was the arrival of Three Troop in an excellent position in a farmhouse on the road overlooking the bridge.

I refer to escape routes. Don't forget, we were Cavalry not Infantrymen and we had been trained accordingly. Our basic role was the collection of information. We worked in armoured cars, or on foot in small numbers. Tasks included the observation of roads used by the "Teds" (German) as to the type of vehicles in use. How wide is a River, how deep and so on. Determine the use of a building by the enemy as an O.P. Is a certain village occupied? What ammunition have they got? Indeed any information that might be useful to Corps HQ.

The point I make is, that to have gone to the trouble and effort to get this information, it would defeat the object entirely to get involved in an action that might endanger getting the information back to Squadron H.Q.

The operation at this time was called "PORTER FORCE" consisting of the 27th Lancers, a force of Armour and Artillery and the P.P.A. a force under the command of our Lt Colonel H Porter who was considered to be most brilliant. He trained the regiment itself, in his own considered, unorthodox way.

A mention of the P.P.A. (Popsky's Private Army).
Popsky was quite a character, he had managed through the desert campaign and had dealings with the Long Range Desert Group, to organise and lead a hundred men equipped with jeeps. They had almost a free hand with Porter Force; he took up position on our right and to his right on the coast was the Canadians.

So we found ourselves on a bridge in the dark. It was a Saturday night and Ernest Schofield (a friend and colleague) and I were sat in the forward trench in the damp trying to see up the road. Conversation centred on girls and the Capitol Ballroom in Leeds, where we were stationed for some weeks before embarking for Egypt some time earlier. Our attention was drawn to some muffled noise up ahead. We couldn't see anything but there was some movement. Something had crossed the road from left to right. If you can get your line of sight on the road with the sky as a background, the sky can be slightly lighter than the foreground and a shadow, a figure, what have you, can be observed. I felt I had seen something. There it was again. Ernie slipped back to house to inform our Officer of the situation. He came back with the story that H.Q. informs us that there was a stray horse in the area. It was the first time I had ever seen a horse cross a road in two parts. The night then passed without incident. When our stint had finished in the early hours of Sunday morning, we got down and had a sleep and before you knew it morning was upon us.

The day began dull and damp, food was produced Bread, Bully beef or tinned bacon, we could carry that sort of food with us. I was just about to cut some bread for us all when Ernie said we had run out of milk. He volunteered to take a Scout Car and get some from a Squadron position down the road so off he went.

By this time it is 8.30 am and I was at the end of my Bread slicing, a machine gun began operating on the bridge; it sounded like a Bren Gun, then a more rapid mode of fire from more than one could be heard. It was a SPANDAU (a very efficient machine gun), which was general issue to the German Forces. It sounded just like an engine. It was something I was really afraid of. The Bren in the forward trench had stopped firing, so all I could do was think the worst.

Five of us gained entry to the front of our house, a ground floor window which had a sash type window of dimensions 3 feet high and 2 feet across occupied the front room, we pushed a table up to the window and two of us took up positions with a Bren Gun and had a good look at the bridge, the flood and the action taking place.

The Slit trenches were now being used by two Germans in each, there was a line of Germans on the opposite bank, possibly a company of about 100 strong using a wood as a background from which they gained cover. Our immediate decision, the decision of all five in the front room was to keep the heads down of the Germans in the Slit trenches. We had realised that there wasn't enough space in the front of the house to use anything else but the window and the Bren. So I used the Bren continuously and the lads filled empty magazines. The Teds were now using mortars and things were definitely hotting up. Another group was attempting crossing over the bridge but failed. The enemy in the trench were well and truly in trouble.

The Sergeant came into the room I remember he said that Popsky would be coming up to help out. At this time a German Red Cross man did a crouching run over the bridge to the rear trench. The Sergeant got quite excited and told me to shoot him. I refused point blank. He retired to the back and the radio. We continued to keep the heads down from the Germans occupying the slit trenches and anybody showing his face on the bridge. I observed a German of Rank (uniform), I switched to him and missed and he then disappeared. There was a lot of return fire, the window was hit and the glass shattered everywhere. We pushed the sash window up which gave access to the Bren. We should really have knocked out the glass when we started but we didn't think at the time. It was obvious now that the opposition would try to take the bridge in force; they knew our limited firepower and strength. Out situation was feeling hopeless at this point. Our means of escape was very poor. The dirt track from the house to the road and bridge was about 50 yards, there was a Scout Car on it about 20 yards from the house door. To take this path would put us in full view of the attackers. The only cover was the Scout Car itself. It would take two of us, one driving if it was to be mounted, To mount the car exposure would be greater still as we would have to clamber up and over.

Popsky arrives, 3 jeeps approached stationing themselves some 40 yards away from the bridge and commenced spraying the far banks and bridge area. All this time the Germans were trying to get across or at least gain some advantage on the bridge, but we managed to hold on. The troop was down to 6 of us in the house. The Officer and Sergeant had managed to slip down into the water and make their way using the dyke bank and our cover to get to the road and Popsky. We had a look at the situation and decided to make our way to the Scout Car. We managed this all right, but now there were five of us pinned behind the car. We returned fire from this position and used grenades, our move had been observed and it seemed all hell let loose. One trooper Jim decided to take to the water couldn't make it and got back to us wet through.

Popsky having received a bad wound on his left had decided to retire to the Canadian Medics, taking the wounded Lancer Trooper Greetham, Our Corporal Jack Conolley who was with him in the forward trench had been killed sadly. The Jeep Commander had also decided to ask for reinforcements.

The German attack had petered out, possibly a regrouping exercise materialising in a further attack. Popsky left two jeeps covering the bridge from his end.
If a further attack was to take place our position was hopeless. We decided to take to the flood, using the dykes as much as possible. The water was knee high in most places but holes and other obstructions could not be avoided. It was December, the light was very poor and temperature was very cold. The aim was to head west away from the bridge and loop south to regain the road where a Squadron HQ could be picked up.
We had gained another trooper from the house; he said he left his mate in the upstairs room who said he would use the darkness to get out, so the six of us took to the dykes.
We approached a flooded farmhouse with a boat tethered outside, it was across the fast flowing current of the canal, but we managed to retrieve it. One of the lads opted to get to another farm some quarter of a mile distance across the flood. It was a bad decision on his part as he drowned in the process; we picked up his body some days later.

The group was now down to five men, another boat was found in the roof of a barn a bit further into the flood. It proved quite useful because we no longer had to use the dykes. We were able to cross the flooded fields instead of going around them. Eventually we gained the Ravenna road and "B" Squadron HQ, we dried out a bit and had some food and then given transport to our own "D" Squadron.

We learned from the P.P.A. the Germans withdrew that night and left some thirty dead.

Two days were spent in the village where our Squadron HQ was situated. We cleaned up, rested and wrote our reports, re-organised and we took up a forward position not far from the bridge of the action and proceeded to do patrols, through the woods, in preparation for an advance into the valley approaching the RIVER PO.