Information for Veterans and their families

Harry Mathieson

Harry Mathieson has been in touch with me since my original posting of his request for help on this site. He has since added his accounts to the BBC People's War website and has kindly given me permission to publish his accounts here.

Initially Harry contacted me with the following information:

Harry was in the 78th Divison from 1943 until demob in 1947.

He has a copy of Battle Axe Weekly on computer copied from one he has.

Harry served with RASC with the 36th Infantry Brigade.

He remembers driving jeeps with a platoon at Cassino and all the smoke and mules (some of them dead) blocking the paths on the mountainside. They also used jeeps as ammo carriers and stretcher bearers as they could take 4 stretchers. The jeeps could go almost anywhere using a trailer and chains on all wheels.

In daylight with Red Cross flag flying they brought back the wounded. Germans had respect for the flag.

Harry Mathieson. Driver. RASC. 327 Coy/217 Field Ambulance (attached). Jeep Platoon/57 Coy 36th Inf Brigade.

Here are the stories that Harry has had published on the BBC People's War website, reproduced with his kind permission. I have made some minor edits to it to help it flow.

A few of Harry's mates camped in a olive grove at Biancaville, Sicily. Harry is at back on the right. Click the image to enlarge it.

Harry says:

I lived in Grimsby and when war broke out I was 15, nearly 16. As the war went on and consciption started I thought I would escape being called up as those being called up were much older than I was. However, after 3 years of war it came my turn to go.

After a medical (which I passed A1) I went to Lincoln to train with the Lincolnshire Regiment. It was hard going for 3 months but it made us fit. We then expected to be posted to a battalion but heard they were looking for drivers in the RASC so I applied and was accepted. #

More training at Carlisle but less bull learning to drive heavy trucks. After passing my test I was sent to what was called a mob centre at Alloa in Scotland to await embarkation.

I sailed from Greenock on the night of Christmas Day, 1942 after having our dinner. The ship was called Nea Hellas and was a Greek ship. I have a picture of it when it returned to cruising after the war. Then followed 9 days of hell after we joined the convoy. It was the worst Atlantic storm anyone could remember. We were also trying to dodge the U-boats. After 9 days we passed through the Straits of Gibralter into the calm of the Mediterranean and landed at Algiers on January 6th, 1943.

After a stay in camp at Algiers race course in tents, we went up to the line and joined the Coy supporting the First Guards Brigade in the 78 Division. From then on we were transporting rations and ammunition over the mountain roads to the brigade. This was all at night with no lights. During the day we parked up and covered the wagons with scrim nets.

If we got hungry at night we could warm up a tin of food by opening a flap on the side of the engine in the cab just big enough to put the tin in. Nice wagons those 3 ton Bedfords.

After the campaign was over we had a spell at Hamin Met on the coast. During this time we went swimming most days in the Mediterranean where I was stung by a jelly fish on a very sensitive place. A penalty for swimming in the raw.

We embarked for Sicily in LCI's about July 24th. I'm not sure about the exact date, but we expected a pleasant crossing but got another shock with the weather. The crossing was terrible. Everyone was seasick. The flat bottom of the boat kept hitting the waves with booming sound. We landed on a beach just south of Syracuse. We could see the town in the distance. As the invasion had been on for more than 2 weeks we quickly drove North through Catania and then West round the South of Mount Etna.

We were mostly supplying the 25 pounder guns with ammunition. The cases were fairly light but the shells in the metal boxes were very heavy and needed 2 men to load into the Bedfords. When we reached the ammunition dump it was a case of unload as best you could. Just slide the shells to the tailboard and let them fall to the ground. We didn't waste any time as it was dark and there was quite a lot of gunfire from both sides. We were the lucky ones and could get back to the comparative safety of our base. I was still only 19 years of age and in a way it was very exciting.

It was in Italy that I got involved more with the war in a real way. I left 237 Coy RASC and was attached to the 217 Field Ambulance as an ambulance driver in the Termoli area, driving Austin ambulances. These were very cumbersome and were really not suited to the conditions. One day I had some wounded on board and while driving down a narrow track down a slope the front offside wheel just came off and rolled away. I never found it. The stub axle had sheared off. I was pleased when we got the new Dodge ambulances. These could get almost anywhere and were more comfortable for patients and drivers. It was during this time I had my 20th birthday. I was growing up fast. We ventured a lot further forward with the Dodge's, up to where the 5.5 guns where firing. They seemed to be firing almost continually. One night one of them blew up and there were casualties. This is were the Dodges were a lot better than the old Austins.

After Termoli was in Allied hands, we departed to Campabassa in the mountains and then onto Cassino. I volunteered to join the Jeep Platoon.
The jeeps were based at San Michele on a hill overlooking the valley and Highway 6. The Monastery of Monte Cassino could be clearly seen 2 miles across the valley. Unfortunately this meant they could see us.

Most of the lads were about the same age as myself and this was good because previously I had always been younger than the rest of the drivers. I met a lad called Freddie Westhead. He came from Aspull, a village near Wigan. We got on well and became firm friends. We found an old house or what was left of it to sleep in and it became ours for all the time we were there.
This was a new experience for me.

We were transporting supplies with jeep and trailer at night, sometimes as far as Cairo, a village in the mountains several miles away along mountain tracks. We couldn't do anything in daylight as we would have been seen. With the windscreen folded flat on the bonnet we crawled along these narrow tracks in the dark.

Once I had an Infantry soldier with me and as we came to a fork in the track I wasn't sure of the way. He said I think it's right but we had driven between the 2 tracks, one went uphill and the other went downhill. The jeep went over to the left and as I stopped it was balancing on the left front wheel and the right back wheel. I said to my mate, I will get out first and then you get out. We carried out this operation and then it went over on its back. In a while some soldiers came along and we put it back on its wheels. No damage just the steering wheel slightly bent. I kept that jeep all the time.

On another occasion there was a dead mule blocking the track so I tied a rope round its back legs and the other end to the jeep. When I backed up the legs came off. It was rotten and the stench was terrible, in fact the whole area had a horrible smell. I drove over what was left of the mule. If we couldn't get back to our base before daylight we stayed until it got dark.

Sometimes we had to do a daylight run. This was carried out under cover of smoke which was laid down on the stretch of Highway 6 in view of the Monastery. We called this The Mad Mile. As we came out of the smoke we had to slow down to turn right off Highway 6 and onto a side road, from then on we couldn't be seen from the Monastery.

At San Michele our base was not really safe. I was resting in our little casa one day near to the remains of a window when they shelled us. I heard this dull sounding explosion and a shower of earth went up just outside. A larged crater had appeared just a few yards away. I think the wet state of the ground had lessoned the effect. I heard there had been casualties to some of our lads.

One of my worst experiences was one night when we moved the West Kents into Cassino railway station. I had the cook with his bits and pieces in the trailer. I think the Germans suspected that something was going on as they shelled us and put up flares. The Kents were taking over from the New Zealanders. I had no idea of the way I just followed the jeep in front. I only knew we had reached the railway station when we drove over railway lines. After I had unloaded someone asked me if I would wait as there had been some casualties and a Quarter Master had been wounded. He looked bad as they laid him in my trailer. I had to get him to an ADS as soon as possible. All our jeep lads had gone and I had to find my way out of the station and through Cassino. There was nothing left of the town, just rubble and shell holes. By sheer luck I found my way out and got onto Highway 6. There was no smoke as it was night time. I found the ADS and handed him over. I did my best for him. Not long after the 78 Division pulled out back to Naples for a rest.

When I returned to action again, it was with the advance up to Lake Trasimene and Castiglione. We had jeeps again but I got the job known as the body snatcher. It was a cushy little job if you didn't mind handling dead bodies. I just had to collect the dead from the ADS and take them back in the trailer to the MDS where I handed them over to the Padre. After that I went back to my unit where we now had jeeps fitted up with rails to take 4 stretchers - no trailers now.

The jeeps did not have the space on them to show the Red Cross sign clearly so we carried a large Red Cross flag pole on the bonnet. I have to say that this was always respected by the Germans as we had to go out in daylight along some lanes that were under constant observation by the Germans.

One particular lane had a corner that was known as Spando Corner. It wasn't even safe at night as their machine guns had a fixed line on it. We had to go out in daylight as it was safe for us with the flag.

The 78 Division was now due for rest, re-training and refitting. We were transported by railway trucks down to Taranto. It was a long journey with lots of stops and brews up from the steam loco. If I knew then what I know now I would never have drunk that tea. You see after the war I worked on British Rail, first a fireman and then a driver, and I know what goes in the water that steam locos use.

The voyage to Port Said was a welcome relief from the train. We sunbathed on the deck most of the way there. When we disembarked at Port Said we were taken to a place in the desert called Qassasin. This was a huge camp site with a cookhouse were we seemed to be fed most of the time with curry. It was a grim place as there was no shelter from the sun. Most days we went in a liberty truck to the Blue Lagoon. This was a lido on the edge of the Suez canal. After the swimming we went to a NAAFI in Ismailia called The Blue Kettle, this was our regular routine.

There was one other pastime - this was a visit to the cinema. It was called Shaftoes - a large ramshackle tent with a screen to show the films. If the film broke down (as it often did) there would be outrage and the screen was bombarded with empty lemonade bottles. What a shambles.

Taken by an Arab photographer in Cairo. Click to enlarge.

After 6 weeks in Egypt we returned to Italy and moved up to the Gothic line.

I was still driving the stretcher jeeps and was based in a little town in the mountains called Castel del Rio. The weather was terrible. We were only in Castel del Rio to have our jeeps serviced. Most of the time we were in the middle of nowhere in the snow. The conditions were very bad for getting about. The mountain tracks were covered in ice and snow but the Willys jeeps could cope fully fitted with chains.

My mate, Freddie Westhead, and myself devised a way of getting out of the wind and snow. We dug a cave into the hard packed ice and snow and put our ground sheets and blankets in it. However, the first night in the cave it snowed heavily and the entrance was blocked up. We were ok but there had been a callout in the night and nobody could find us. Our Sergeant gave us a rollicking for not letting him know about it.

Transporting the wounded along those iced up tracks must have been rough for them but they were strapped on. One night I got a callout to bring back someone who was badly wounded. When I got there they told me he had died but I should bring him just the same. They slid the stretcher onto my jeep but they hadn't strapped him on. On the way back the jeep lurched to one side and he fell off into the snow. I managed to get him back onto the jeep with a struggle as he was heavy. I felt upset over it.

With the start of spring coming we left the mountains and went down to Forli. I left the jeeps and became a DR (dispatch rider). I had a BSA M20 to ride. Didn't think much to it, too heavy and slow. As soon as I could, I got a Matchless G3L. A lot better.

My time in the war came to an end when I crashed my motorbike. I hit a large hole in the road and finished up with a fractured shoulder. After a flight in a Dakota plane to Bari and a spell in hospital, I was sent up to Austria to rejoin the 78th Division with 57 Coy RASC. My mate, Freddie Westhead, was there already.

We had two and a half years there. We were first stationed in Villach and did runs to Udine to bring fresh fruit and vegetables, and a supply of Italian vermouth and various other drinks. After that, we spent the rest of our time in Millstat. A pretty little village on the edge of a large lake. It was like a long holiday with swimming in the summer and ski-ing at St Anton in the mountains in the winter. I didn't really want to leave. But demob time came and I was sent to Aldershot and returned to civillian life.

It had been 5 years to the day that I was called up.

We were snapped by a local photographer as we came out of our hotel. The hotel Cortina is on the right of the picture. Click to enlarge.

We had moved to Millstat in Austria as Army of occupation. It was a lovely village on the edge of a lake, with mountains in the background. The locals were very friendly and we used to visit their homes in the evenings.

There was a NAAFI at the lakeside. It had been a cafe previously. The 78th Division had been disbanded and we were now 57 Coy RASC. Things were very relaxed.

Freddie Westhead and myself asked to be dispatch riders attached to the company office. It was the best thing we had ever done. One day on duty and one day off. The day on duty involved a run to Veldon about 50 miles. Maybe a local run or two, and that was it. Apart from that you just had to be on call.

It had now been nearly 3 years since we left England but we didn't really miss it as we were having a good time.

I had a weeks leave in Cortina ski-ing. Freddie stayed to cover me. The chap I went with was older than I was but hadn't been in the Italian campaign. We stayed in the Hotel Cortina, one of the best hotels. It's still there and the prices are very expensive.

I had been sking before in St Anton in Austria and learned all the basics of it so I decided to go up on one of the ski lifts and have a run down. There were several lifts but somehow I got on the one that went right to the top where there was a cafe. I had a drink and decided to be a hero and take the plunge as nobody went down on the lift. I was a long time getting down with lots of falls but I finally made it. I was late for my tea and my mate wondered where I'd got to.

As I have said things were very relaxed. On your day off you did more or less what you liked. My motorcycle was there and petrol was free of course, so we made the most of our time there. I used to go for runs in the countryside in the summer. I had heard about the glazier on Gross Glockner so I decided to go and have a look at it. I set off with a full tank as it would be a long run up the mountain. The road up consisted of endless hairpin bends and was very steep. I came to a very posh looking hotel when nearly at the top. The last bit was steep and there was a parking place at the top. I seemed to be on my own. It was cold up there but I got a good view of the glazier. I had to take care coming down as the road had a lot of gravel which made the bends tricky.

I see that Millstat is in the holiday brochures. It doesn't seem to have changed much from the pictures. I would love to go back there sometime.

Harry sent me a couple more photographs in November 2004. Here they are. Click them to enlarge.

Harry with his wife at his daughter's wedding in Sheffield in 2001
Harry in Amsterdam just before Christmas 2003

Please be aware that information and images on this page are © Harry Mathieson. Please do not reproduce or download any information or images without first seeking permission from Harry.