Almost as we got our [parachute] wings, the group I was with, was told that we were on our way to join the 2nd Parachute Battalion, which had already gone overseas. We then went up into Tunisia, into the line, which had some similarities at that time with the First World War in that there was a sort of a trench system. But instead of being very close to the Germans, like the First World War, we were usually on both sides of a valley. They were on one side and we were on the other side. And there was a lot of patrol work.
The 1st Parachute Brigade, that we were part of, was really, it was called “The Fire Brigade,” that was because we were part of the 1st British Army. They moved us wherever there was a dangerous break in the line or where an attack needed to be done to retake some ground that had been lost and so on. And so that was what the 1st Parachute Brigade did. And that’s where we earned the name the Red Devils, because of the maroon beret that we wore. The Germans got to call us Die Roten Teufel. Die Roten Teufel in English means the “Red Devils.”
I think afterwards, we were told that we had caused more casualties to the enemy than any other brigade in the 1st Army and also had taken more prisoners than any other brigade.
We went back and started training, back in the parachute role, ready for the invasion of Sicily [July 1943]. We jumped on the Primosole Bridge, which ran near the coast of Sicily, near the east coast, over the Simeto River. And the idea was for us, the 1st Parachute Brigade, to jump and take the bridge so the [British] 8th Army, under General [Bernard] Montgomery, would come up and grab the bridge in order to get across into what was called the Catanian Plain. Four hundred of the 1,800 paratroops, of the 1st Parachute Brigade, that had taken off from Sicily, only about 400 actually dropped on the correct drop zone. But we did hang on and the 4th Armoured Brigade of the 8th Army came up and the bridge that we had had for a few hours, we had to let it go, but we were keeping the Germans off it by simply firing at it from the hills from the south of it. And we kept the Germans from occupying the bridge until this armoured brigade turned up with the tanks. And then they took it.
And from there, at that time I was a corporal, and from there I was selected to go to the War Office selection board for a commission [as officer]. And one day, they paraded us, and said that we were going off to somewhere unknown and that our only instructions were not to ask any questions at all of anybody and just to do as we were told.
Off we went, loaded onto a train in London and arrived at Edinburgh Castle, and we were again told not to ask any questions and we were also told we had to sign the Official Secrets Act. We were part of a thing called [Operation] FORTITUDE NORTH, but it was part of what Churchill called the “Barricade of Lies.” We were told that we would be moved as necessary, and that we would receive instructions on how to use the set and what to say in them on the radios on a one or two-day basis. Each time we were moved, they’d come with a truck and pick us up and move us but we always seemed to finish up at the top of some hill or mountain somewhere. And then a dispatch rider would arrive and just give us a piece of paper which was simply the messages we had to send on that radio set, at the time that was given on the piece of paper which we then had to destroy after we’d used it.
And what we’d been doing, we were part of the British 4thArmy, which of course didn’t exist, other than on the radios. And the whole thing we were up to was sending messages that the Germans could easily pick up, which when they put them together, looked as if we were getting to invade Denmark and Norway. And apparently, it worked, because the Germans kept several hundred thousand troops in Denmark, Norway and didn’t move them because they were afraid that an invasion was coming from that part of Scotland and the British 4th Army. And, of course, we were only there for a certain part of it, but it was all to do with D-Day and making sure that the Germans didn’t move troops down into Normandy.
We were allowed actually down into pubs every now and again, and there were lots of pubs in Scotland. But the common factor was, about the pubs we seemed to go to, was that whenever we seemed to go and be able a chance to go and get a beer, that two extraordinarily attractive WAFs [Women’s Air Force] would appear. And they always seemed to turn up wherever we turned up. As a matter of fact, one of the guys finally took one of them out. When he came back, he wouldn’t say a word (laughs).