Italy 1944

My grandfather was to old to be on active service in the services when war broke out in 1939, he was 35. What he did instead was join the Pioneer Corp. This the labouring side of the Forces. I remember my father saying how he remembered my Grandfather lamenting the destruction at Monte Casino in Italy in 1944. My grandfathers job at the time was to help clear up the mess after the battle. It couldn’t have been a very nice job.

Now that my grandparents have long since departed as well as their two sons we dont have much information on him. We dont have many pictures either. A random search of the Internet in November 2011 found a reference to him in a colleagues wartime memories on a web site.

This site run by Philip Clarke includes his late father Cecils wartime recollections and in it are a couple of short references to Bert leask as well a photograph.

The photograph taken in 1944 in Bari, Italy features Bert leask on the left, Cecil Clarke on the right and an Italian called Poppi in the centre. One paragraph that mentions Bert is as follows –

“After a short time I was told by our C.O. that he proposed to recommend me to be Quarter Master Sergeant in a British Cadre to look after an Italian (Smoke) Company. I was taken by the C.O. and introduced to a British Smoke Company to be attached to them for rations and pay, temporarily as was the corporal also involved; I see by my AB64 that I was promoted P/A/Col.Sgt. (C.Q.M.S.) on 29/4/44 and the C.O. himself took me there in the Utility and introduced mi to the C.O. and Sgt. Major of the British Smoke Co. to which I was to be temporarily attached for accommodation and rations. There I met corporal Leask who was transferred from the other company and who thought he was going to be promoted. He was quite a bit older than I was and resented the way things were and it was not exactly a pleasant situation. This turned out to be a hard time in many ways – our Cadre consisted of Captain Mark Pendrill, Corporal Bert Leask and myself. Cpl. Leask and I had accommodation in a block of the Italian barracks and the Italian Company was in the same compound on the other side of the large barrack square.”

So it looks like Grandad had the hump about lack of promotion and I wonder what the story was about his transfer from another unit? He does look older than the other two. Another wartime story my father repeated to me was how one day Grandfather was in the bath and an amnunition ship exploded in the harbour and it blew him out of the bath. I always thought this happened in this country but –

“One beautiful sunny morning about II a.m. Captain Pendrill and I were in our office when there was a huge explosion which rocked the building – I grabbed my tin hat – put it on as I ran crouching low to the door to the passage and the stairs. From the top of the stairs as I started to go down Bert Leask was halfway hesitating for a moment which way to go, he was stark naked and I thought at the time his hair stood on end, I carried on down as I naturally thought it was an air raid on the dock area, I looked cautiously round the corner of the villa towards the docks and a frightening sight met my eyes. There was a tall thick column of black smoke with huge solid objects, which locked like girders high in the air, and falling, the smoke was swirling black with a bulbous upper area. Looking towards the other side – the lighthouse and R.A. Battery I saw nothing unusual and assumed one huge bomb had been dropped and hit a ship or bomb dump. I went upstairs to see what damage there was and if Bert was O.K. etc. A few bits of ceiling were down but luckily the windows had all been open. It was the same on the ground floor but there was more ceiling down. The Italians seemed to be all right. It was almost 12 noon now so I had a word with the Captain and Corporal and could see from the first floor the Oil/Petrol ship had pulled out of the mooring near our villa and was hove to off-shore. The far side of the dock was not properly visible and there was a lot of black smoke. I went to the R.A. Sergeants’ Mess for lunch and saw that the large window in the Ness was blown to bits and a large amount of the bits of glass were sticking in the wall behind the large dining table where we sat for lunch. We were lucky as if we had been at lunch we would all have been very badly cut about. I later also saw the three Special Boat Service men and they told me they had been on the water in the dock bay when the explosion occurred and was in danger of being hit by heavy falling objects that fell into the water all around them. We learned later that a shipload of aerial bombs had exploded as they were being unloaded killing about 250 soldiers and naval personnel. The ship had been blown to pieces and part had landed on the Naval Officers’ Mess – many dock workers, some on cranes, were killed by concussion. The Opera House in the town about a mile away was also damaged by the blast. It was thought it may have been a limpet mine or may have been a bomb dropped accidentally while being unloaded and causing the rest to explode. No certain explanation was ever given that I heard.”

So it was great that this story handed down through three generations had been true. It must have been something to see, a part of the ship landing on the officers Mess.

Thanks to Philip Clarke for letting me reproduce some of his fathers recollections.

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