An air correspondence letter that Desmond Hall sent his father from Italy in December 1944.Desmond Hall
Desmond Hall and a Sikh soldier in the fall of 1942, shortly after Hall was commissioned as an officer.Desmond Hall
Northwest Frontier gunners man a 25 pound gun in January, 1943.Desmond Hall
Sign post somewhere on the Northwest Frontier in 1942 or 1943, now the modern day Afghanistan-Pakistan border.Desmond Hall
Soldiers wearing home made life preservers before the monsoon season, Winter 1942-43.Desmond Hall
"I carried the company commander away and we got down in a gulley, running with water, a deep gulley. And I stayed with him for about an hour or two, tried to do what I could to encourage him, he had a big hole in his steel helmet."
Obviously a war was coming, some, for some of us, it was a fear, for others it was a great excitement and expectancy to some measure. I managed to persuade my parents to let me join the school officers training corps, a rather worthy title, Cadet Corps really. Mother was a pacifist, my father had been in the First World War. But I enjoyed the Corps because it gave me the equivalent of basic training for the military.
In that time, they were trying to get officers that were getting recruits for the Indian Army and if you got a recommendation from your unit, you went before a board. And to cut a long story short, I passed by the skin of my teeth I think, and in 1942, a bunch of us who were officer cadets left for India. And it took eight weeks to get to India. The Suez Canal had long since been closed. And then we got to India, at Bombay, and we were put by train to go up to Mhow in central India, promised three meals a day when the train stopped and I don’t remember having any meal on the train anyway. That’s by the way.
Anyway, by being somewhat restrained and cautious, I managed to be commissioned in, oh, it was March 1942 we got to Mhow in central India, M-H-O-W. And after basic training, that would be, I think it was the beginning of September, we had a choice of where we wanted to go or what we wanted to join. And I had a cousin of mine, older than I was, he was on the frontier in the British army and that sort of made me think it would be a nice place to go to because he spoke about the northwest frontier of India which is now Pakistan. And that would be the Pakistan/Afghan border now.
We had to learn Urdu or sometimes called Hindustani. Urdu actually is a Mohammedan [an older English term for Muslim] language but mixed with some Hindi, so it was known as Hindustani. And we had to get proficiency before we had any promotion or any leave. Now, certain, I remember once running a convoy, I was in the rear and one of the trucks ran into the ditch and then there was some Gurka [Nepalese] soldiers in it or they were responsible for it, and it had mules in the back. So they asked me what to do, I said, well, you’d better let them out of the thing and we had the problem later on when we got help, got the truck back on the road, getting these wretched mules back. They were beautiful animals and they were very useful, we used them up there. And we also, on the frontier at that time, used camels and used them as an ambulance with a big sling each side. Good way of getting seasick.
The heat was a great problem. You were liable to get blisters on your forehead and that kind of thing. Oh, and one thing, when I was in Wana for a year, I remember the date I was in Mansai, which is, oh, 100 miles south, and Mansai is an railhead, an […] head that goes down to Dera Khan, over the bridge to the main line front to Lehore, then north.
Now, I had a friend in Wana, a chap called Harry White. Harry White remarkably, although I didn’t know it at the time, we were both in the rifle brigade. He was the same age as I, he was a highly intelligent fellow. And I have a book here which is “Waziristan: 36 to 37”, and it’s written in the front of it, it is a gift from I presume his uncle to him. And it tells you about the frontier. Harry White was given the job of intelligence officer in Wana and then we came down to Mansai. Mansai was not a brigade base it was a regimental base and he did intelligence. And there, we shared a room for a long time, or when I say a long time, it would be a month or two or three months. And he got ready depressed and walked up and down at night. And then one day he said to me, it was very difficult to talk to him in any confidential way, he said, I’m going south and I’m not coming back and what books I’ve left behind and that’s how I have this one you’re welcome to. And I never saw him again. I knew he went south and he took his own life. It was rather sad really.
I know another fellow who was in the same unit as I was in Wana, he was transferred to our third 12th or, yeah, it was the third 12th in Italy. And when he was on night duty, took his own life too.
And I was posted in 1944 to the Nabha Akal infantry in Italy. We were told to capture Hill 198. Oh, by the way, in Italy, we had the custom that the company commander always went in first and came out last. Actually, it usually means that you’ve run out of company commanders quite quickly. Anyway, it’s a good idea if you lead and others will follow, that’s the way to go I think. Anyway, we took Hill 198 and it was a dawn attack. We had to be there by first light. The first casualty was the major, who was a Mohammedan, and his name was Faiz Ur Raman Khan, FAIZ, UR, Raman, Khan. He was Mohammedan, he’d been about four, five, six years older than I was, I think. But he was the first casualty. The platoon commander with him was killed, I thought, although he was later found to be in a coma I suppose and eventually survived. And I did meet him again later on, he was severely handicapped in Narbha in India. And then so I asked the company commander what to do. So he said, well, it’s your show now, do what you think’s right.
The Germans had got our number, we were shelled and also machine gunned and I wasn’t hit fortunately for me but I had holes in my equipment. But it was a day of grace at least for me. And in the end, I told them to withdraw and I told them to carry the non-walking wounded away and I carried the company commander away and we got down in a gulley, running with water, a deep gulley. And I stayed with him for about an hour or two, tried to do what I could to encourage him, he had a big hole in his steel helmet. Of course, the Sikhs didn’t have helmets, they had turbans and I think a turban is just almost as effective.
Anyway, there was only one other officer left and myself and we withdrew. I stayed with the company commander in the gulley, had a great deal of difficulty getting out of that wretched gulley because it was so deep. And I used, in those days, I had a kirpan, that’s a small Sikh dagger about 18 inches long. I never used it in battle but I used it to get out of that gulley. You stuck it in the wall of the gulley and pulled up and then clambered after it. And then went again a bit higher. And then if a shell came over, by that time, you could usually tell fairly well whether they were going over, going under or going to, very near. So I remember pulling it out once or twice and you go right down to the bottom of the gulley again, then start all over.
Anyway, I got back and we sent out stretcher bearers for the company commander and they brought him back.