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Joshua Slater's War in North Africa

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:59 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

World War Two Memories - Louise Slater

My dad was called Joshua Slater and his father was called Harold Slater and his father was called Joshua Slater and so on, and the family lived in the small town of Keighley, West Yorkshire since at least the 1700s and probably earlier. They didn't travel much, if at all, so the wrench of travelling abroad to fight must have been immense. My dad was born in 1916, right in the middle of World War One. Little did he know then what was waiting for him.

He was blond, with piercing blue eyes and had a slim but deceptively strong build. During the 30's he did some boxing and I believe he was a flyweight. His weight of ten stones never fluctuated throughout his life. A very dapper dresser, he wore all the latest clothes fashioned by Edward VIII, such as plus eight and sixteen trousers, Fair Isle jumpers and the Prince of Wales check suits.

His father was working away during the war, not much is known of that. We believe he was in Liverpool working as an engineer. His brother was also away during the war and there was some mystery about that too. So my dad was living at home alone with his mother, and when his conscription papers came, she gave them to him only after he'd eaten his dinner. I can only imagine the heartbreaking atmosphere after that.

At 24 he was quite old to be called up. He was sent to several army training sites around the country. One site was at Manchester Zoo which he said was very eerie listening to the caged animals roaring at night!

He spoke about how people from different classes came face to face for the first time. He told me that most of the officers were from privileged backgrounds and were very young and naive. These officers were now in a position to give other older working-class men orders, some of whom were not completely compliant. There were unpleasant incidents and my dad remembers one young officer who sadly took his own life due to these difficulties.

He was sent to Swaffham and Thetford in Norfolk for further military training. Travelling from there to London by train he arrived at Liverpool Street Station to find a German plane had been shot down right on Bishopsgate. It was an enormous shock to see the plane nose down, smoking, with an enormous swastika on the side. It really brought home the reality of war and how dangerous it was to be in London.

My parents were married in Chiswick and very sadly my mother got caught up in the Blitz of 1941 and had a miscarriage. As a consequence, my paternal grandparents invited her to live with them in Yorkshire in comparative safety. As a family, we stayed in Yorkshire from then on.

My dad went on to Tunisia for the North Africa campaign. They sailed from Liverpool, and the military police had to go in after soldiers who jumped over the side to try and swim away.

Indeed when they got to Tunisia, again soldiers jumped ship and some ran off into the desert. Aboard the ship were what my dad told me were known as the "undesirable corps" - prisoners who had been released in order to do their service. There were a certain type of men who would not be taking orders from anyone, real rough types. This was all a shock to my dad who was quite a sensitive man. Before the war, he wanted to be a guitarist and played rhythm guitar in a little band called "The New Yorkers". All that ambition now had to be put on hold.

He was stationed at Monastir and was on night duty at an orange grove. For a man who had never left England, he said the scenes were biblical; he saw camels and people in Arab dress. It was freezing cold at night and when dawn came the Arab orange grove workers stood up from where they'd been sleeping outside. He said they were not treated very well by the French.

Travelling through the desert, the soldiers would take shelter and one night they came across a dugout left by the Americans. They knew because they had left all their rubbish, leaving their presence obvious to the enemy. It was full of discarded empty chocolate and cigarette packets, and also letters from home which my dad read through the night for entertainment. I remember him telling me about about a letter from one American family in Texas informing their son that they had hired a new Chinese chef. When the British moved on, they were trained to clear their belongings and not leave a trace of their position.

Sadly my dad was injured in the desert. They were in a dugout at night, and Germans were very nearby. Shots were fired and a hand grenade was thrown into their trench. He opened fire with his Bren light machine gun and heard the cries from an injured soldier shouting "Schweinhund!" This haunted my dad for the rest of his life. As he became older and suffered ill health, he began to think this was his punishment for killing the German soldiers, who after all, were only young men like themselves.

He was injured by the grenade. It blew a hole in his foot and he fainted three times just looking at it. He was looked after by American medics, who used a new procedure to pack the wound with something in order to save the foot from amputation. It worked, and his foot was saved. The American military hospital camp was very welcoming to my dad. Food and cigarettes were plentiful, and they had entertainers visiting such as Bob Hope.

Apparently, he and his fellow soldiers didn't like Vera Lyn much because she made them miserable and homesick. They preferred to listen to American swing bands such as Glen Miller and Benny Goodman.

He was finally fit enough to travel back to England on leave where he needed more physiotherapy to recover. He ended up working in the sports kit department of a military base in Berwick upon Tweed. He never travelled abroad after that.

For a blond, he had an astonishing tan from the North African sun, and when my mother went to visit him in the military hospital the doctor said my dad looked healthier than she as she was so pale! In time he was able to travel back by train to his home in Keighley. He wore his army uniform and was still on crutches at this point. He got a taxi from the station and was dismayed that the taxi driver asked him if he'd been in an accident! My dad thought - don't you know there's a war on!

He came home to food rationing, and said how everyone seemed so much more healthier on it! There were limitless vegetables grown here and people could get the"national loaf" - a mixture of white and wholemeal flour which my dad said was very healthy. When rationing ended there was a mad rush for the soft white bread people had craved. When the sweets and chocolate restrictions were lifted in 1954, he said there were long queues at sweet shops, with people buying armfuls of chocolate and then they would go to the next sweet shop to buy as much as they could carry.

Before television, everyone loved the cinema or the pictures to watch the latest Hollywood films and also the Pathe News programmes. When they started to report on the Jewish concentration camps, people were in complete disbelief and revulsion. People fainted and vomited, and some ran to leave the cinema. My dad said soldiers were guarding the doors to prevent people from leaving, and were told to go back and watch what they had been fighting for. I don't think people knew the extent of the cruelty and even today those events never fail to shock and are hard to comprehend.


Item list and details

1. Photo of Joshua Slater in KOYLI uniform - Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with wife Helena and baby Angela born September 1944. 2. Photo, probably Christmas 1944.

Person the story/items relate to

Joshua Slater

Person who shared the story/items

Louise Slater

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

He was my father

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID