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Diary Notes from Wilf Shaw - WW2 army book memoirs

This was the dress issued to us prior to going to the Middle East war in 1941, we never wore any of it, just like all the morse sending and receiving we did, we never used it, all I can remember was using field telephones and the 18 set.


On this photo, my mate Fred Zilken is far right standing, I have many letters which he wrote to me up to a few years ago, great lad was Fred, he succumbed to Parkinsons in the end, he tried to the end to write to me; only one other on the photo I can remember by name, "Nobby Clements" second right seated, wonder if any friends or relatives of those I knew see this website, I would love to hear from one or two of them.


Wilf Shaw's comments on Middle East dress in WW2

 Part of signal platoon outside Marston House April 1941 - WW2 photo, war book, story, diary

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The term "Desert Rat" is one which was truly descriptive of the kind of life led by an Infantryman, because in no other branch of the services did men live as, and in such close proximity to, that rather lovable desert rodent, which like ourselves lived in holes in the ground.


Not so long ago there was a rather limited conflict (comparatively) in the Gulf in which men from this country played a part. They, soon after the conflict had got under way, began to call themselves "Desert Rats". It made me smile - the conditions and the circumstances they had to endure didn’t even begin to compare with those experienced by the men of the EIGHTH ARMY in which I served and in which more than 150,000 were casualties.


For a long period, I shared a two man dugout with Peter McKenna from Glasgow [Peter John McKenna or Mc Kenna]. We shared more than a dugout, we shared the contents of parcels from home, we shared the news from our letters, we shared our innermost thoughts, our fears, our troubles, our laughs, our painful attempts at singing, we shared the danger. I got through it, (not unscathed). Peter didn’t. He died from wounds received when acting as signaler to an officer during an attack just after D Day, 6 June 1944.

Different kinds of Desert Rats in WW2

Mention of the word DESERT ROSE to anyone unfamiliar with the desert in the 2nd World War would no doubt conjure up visions of something of botanical beauty, in which case it is probably as well to describe - both it, and its function - from the point of view of us Infantrymen who, from time to time, had to avail ourselves of its use.


Like any other kind of rose, it first had to be planted! This was done by digging a hole about 2 feet square as deep down you could possibly go, which would be anything from 6 to 8 feet. This was then filled with broken stone, large pieces at the bottom, then smaller ones on top up to about a foot from the top of the hole – enough to sink an empty petrol tin with an open top and with holes pierced in the bottom. Into this tin was placed a second petrol tin, jammed corner ways. This also had holes in the bottom. Its function was a desert urinal, to be placed at specific distances from dugouts, cookhouse etc.


One might ask, "Why bother with a urinal in a desert?" But the army rule was quite strict, "Any man found urinating other by use of a desert rose will be placed on a 252” (in non army language, a crime sheet)    


Desert Roses  in WW2

Some 20 years ago, Wilf typed his WW2 memoirs into a diary and here they are below, gradually being added to as time allows.

Tommy Gartland on left & Cpl Walpole 3rd left - WW2 pic, war book, story, diary

Desert Rats in North Africa - Tommy Gartland on left & Cpl Walpole 3rd left


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Tommy Tinkler, WW2 soldier story

Desert Rose - Link to Telegraph article, war book, story, diary
Modern Desert Rose, war book, story & WW2 diary

Link to a modern day Desert Rose in The Telegraph

A modern day Desert Rose from Michael Yon online


Characters always seem to be remembered more than the rest of us. TOMMY TINKLER  was just such a character, he was the one who was always singing, not that he had any pretensions about his singing – he used singing and well known songs as a means of expressing his thoughts about things which hadn’t a lot to do with war - like his own version of the song made popular by the pre war dance, band leader, Henry Hall, which, if my memory serves me correctly, went by the title of “Olga Polovski the beautiful spy". Tommy changed the title to “Olga Polony" and he changed the words as follows:


"She's Olga Polony, the dirty old spy,

She hawks the mutton in Cairo,

Till she came to grips,

With the bold Henry Phipps,

Who had just landed by Autogiro.”


Henry Phipps was of course, one of the lads in the platoon, whose response to this was to take an extra large puff on his old pipe and blow it in the direction of Tinkler, without so much more than the raising of an eyebrow. There was nobody special in the Coy - we all had the piss taken out of us, just as we took it out of somebody else.                  


Keeping clean in the desert was a bit of a problem as water was strictly rationed. There were times, however, when various CO’s, by virtue of badgering the powers that be at Brigade and Divisional HQ, somehow managed to get a little extra allocation.


The few times I can remember it happening, we got the loan of a canvas bath from one or other of the officers, we erected the bath, a piece of suitably shaped canvas with the corners pushed over four wooden supports, and poured in our extra water rations, it might have been five gallons, might have been ten, but whatever it was, it looked pitifully inadequate to bathe a human body, or more correctly nine human bodies - because all the Platoon had to use it. We decided this by lot, drawing cards - Ace high, King next and so on - if any two duplicated they drew again against each other.


The lucky one was, of course, the guy who got first turn in the bath - by the time the last one got his turn, it was like a mixture of sand and cement. Many a time the last three or four declined the doubtful cleansing properties of this mixture of sand, water and who knows what else?!

Who said we didn't get a bath?


Sgt Jerry 0'GRADY of Z Coy had a short list of men to whom he was not particularly well disposed. Henry Jefferies and I must have formed a fairly prominent part of that list, as our names seemed to be stuck permanently on the tip of his tongue - we seemed to get all the dirty jobs when fatigues had to be done. Exactly why he had this down on us, we never quite found out - perhaps the fact that we were surplus to requirements in the Signal Platoon and had been put into Z Coy as replacement rifle men made us a little bit Bolshie, which didn't go unnoticed by the Sgt Major.


One day, on board the New Mauritania, they decided to run a Battalion boxing tournament and 0'Grady asked the assembled Coy one morning for volunteers - not a single hand was raised, until Jeff nudged me and said, "I'll have a go Shaw if you will". The Sgt Major stared in disbelief when we put up our hands. After just 2 minutes in the ring Jeff had his eyebrow ripped open.  I lasted a little longer but think I was knocked all round the ship before they stopped it. I don't think Jeff and I did a single fatigue after that – 0'Grady treated us like heroes!

Jeff and I Box for Z Coy on board the New Mauritania


It was during the voyage up to North Africa that I made the acquaintance of Joe Bainbridge. Joe ran a Crown & Anchor board every day on the deck of the ship.  I helped him collect the money in after the winning bets had been paid out.  

Crown & Anchor was a square piece of  cloth divided into six equal squares. In each square was the printed symbol of each of the suits in a pack of  cards ie Spade, Club, Heart and Diamond. The  other two squares had a ship's anchor and a crown. These coincided with similar symbols on the six sides of three dice.  


A cup was placed over the dice and they were given a good shuffling around, then the gathered assembly of players staked their money on a symbol on the cloth.  The cup was lifted to reveal the upturned dice faces, those successful would be paid out - even money if one symbol was correct, two to one if two, and three to one if three. Joe used to have the assembly in uproar with a never ending stream of witty conversation. At the end of every game he would pick up all the loose change and hurl it skywards for the punters to scramble for!            

Crown and Anchor dice game


Typing up a lot of my memoirs was no great problem to me because for the last 20 years or so of my working life my job was repairing typewriters and adding machines, these were the old type of machines and we got to be able to type to a reasonable standard.


I remember we had to make a lot of our own tools, many of which I still have even now, eventually manual machines gave way to electric ones then ultimately electronic ones. I worked on all of them - my job soon after leaving the forces though was on Commercial Vehicles, I used to mark out and do the machining of bus chassis, I loved the job but the firm began to fold and I had to find another job.


I was never out of a job and worked until I was 70, then I worked on a voluntary job at the local hospital. I used to drive patients to the hospital chapel for morning service and I did that until I was 80 years of age then packed it all in - now I just get out every day - I'll just rumble on in my own kind of way until I hit the buffers.

A postscript from Wilf, aged 92

Crown and Anchor dice, Wilf Shaw's war diary, war book, story
Wilf at his typewriter some years ago writing his war memoirs, war book

Wilf's personal war diary anecdotes and stories

Henry Jeffries, WW2 soldier story - At Plumer Barracks at Marston and at El Alamein.

Henry Jeffries, better known to the rest of us as Jeff, seemed to be a part of my life from call up to demobilization. We were called up on the same date in 1940, 13 June, and his army number is within a few digits of my own - 4753850. We both opted to volunteer for specialist training as signalers -  we both moved up to Richmond, Yorkshire, on 8 0ctober l940 where we then met up with the other eight who ultimately joined the 6th Battalion, the Green Howards at Marston House, near Frome in Somerset.

We were both in Z Coy together when we went abroad – both put into C Coy ( Rifle Coy) together, and at the battle of El Alamein we were both in A Coy together - I have written in my memoirs how, at El Alamein, Jeff (who always swore that he would throw his arms up in surrender at the first sight of the enemy) helped me carry a badly wounded comrade to relative safety in spite of the fact that his back was fully exposed to the direction of enemy fire little more than 50 yards away. I think about that every time Jeff comes to mind - he seemed to bear a charmed life - and he went through it all without so much as a physical scratch.



Wilf and his radio at Normandy ...

At one stage of the fighting in Normandy a shell came over. I was down in the trench but, of course, the 18 set had to be above me.  I lay in the bottom of the trench, flatter than a pancake, sweating, cursing and praying. So this shell came over and exploded, hellish close, the 18 set went for a burton. I gathered it all up, 3 or 4 holes in it, "Can't possibly be working" I thought. I pressed the pressel switch, " Dog 7 ! report my signals" - pregnant pause - back came the reply, "Dog 7, hear you strength 5, over". I just couldn't believe it!

Operating the Infantry 18 Set 1.  Wilf Shaw's war diary, war book, story
Canvas bath ww2 diary book and story

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