A chapter-length article: PART 2 (of 3)
“Armed with this document we went down to the navy and managed to get onto a landing barge the following morning. We didn’t know what we would find in Italy, so before we left Messina we scrounged a lorry and a piano, and persuaded the navy boys to push them onto the barge with us. We had to leave all our luggage in Messina, Beryl had just the dress she wore and I had a pair of shorts, a shirt and my shaving tackle in a trench coat. So off we went to Reggio on D-plus-4, the first British civilians to set foot in Italy since 1939. At Reggio we entertained men of all three services, together with Americans and Canadians. It was the proudest moment of my life. I sang ‘Mr Wu‘, ‘Blackpool Rock‘ and ‘Bell-Bottom George‘ and did a comedy routine with Beryl, and told them that I was glad and honored to be the first British artist to play to the fighting lads in Italy. They had gone a long way, and I had a bit of a rush to catch them up.
We had no place to sleep, so that night we all lay down in sleeping bags in the town-major’s office. About one o’clock in the morning there was a knock on the door; in fact it wasn’t a door, but a piece of corrugated iron we were using instead, as the original had been blown out. It was a dusty dispatch rider with a message, or rather, an order, from General Montgomery inviting us to go forward to play for his troops in the front line.
The next day was a Saturday, the 11th of September, and it seemed more like three years than three weeks since we had left Bristol. We had given thirty-six shows so far, and we were really getting weary. At seven, we got up, and after I’d shaved using an old mess tin we went downstairs to the jeep that Montgomery had sent down for us, and off we went, trying to catch up with the 8th Army. What a job we had! We went along for miles, and didn’t see any sign of fighting or anything to indicate the presence of war. Then we would come along a bit of high ground and find a lot of shell-holes and burnt-out tanks and guns, and rough signs and notices reading, ‘This is Monty’s Highway.’
About ninety-two miles up the toe of Italy we arrived at quite a big river, and the only bridge had been blown up by the retreating Germans. As it was mid-summer, the river had dried up, and we had to make a detour through the river bed which had been mined by the Germans before they blew up the bridge. The sappers had cleared a path through the mines and marked the clear passage with two white tapes so that the big guns could be taken through. This was our first taste of a minefield, and although we were not actually scared, we were not feeling too clever about it. The Red Caps actually warned the soldiers before crossing to keep absolutely within the white tapes. We were close behind some twenty-five pounders and about forty or fifty yards in front of us we could see a lot of Italian soldiers wandering around. Four or five of them carelessly stepped off the track to allow the line of lorries and guns to go past, and one of them stepped on to a mine. We could see the explosion and the clouds of dust rising before we heard the report. Of course, the whole convoy came to a standstill and when everything cleared away we saw that two of them had been blown to pieces, a third had his arm blown off and the others were badly wounded. We had never actually seen any fighting ourselves, yet suddenly here we were seeing men get killed. We didn’t know what to do for the minute, but stay in the jeep while our boys jumped off their lorries and helped clear up the mess and attend to the wounded Italians to try to make them as comfortable as possible, before an ambulance could come along.
In a soldier’s life, that seemed just an incident, but it left us very shaken and quiet. Eventually we got over the river and travelled for another eight miles before we located the division which we had to report to. I asked the major in charge where we were; how close to the front line were we? “You’re in it”, he said grimly. He told us we would be all right if we stayed in the olive groves, as there were snipers about outside. He got about fifty of his lads together, and Beryl and I did a show for them and then slept overnight in a tent in the olive groves.
We were due at 8th Army headquarters at eleven on Sunday, after church parade. We were very much in awe of General Montgomery, and when I met him, his glance nearly paralysed me, but after chatting for a couple of minutes I felt quite at ease with him. We would have loved a cup of tea, but Monty urged us on to give a show for his boys, so we went out onto the sunlit hillside and sang and joked for about three quarters of an hour, before being invited to lunch with the general. He ate just the same as the boys do, bully beef, mashed potatoes and sausages; all out of tins. The only perks that we saw he had were half a dozen hens and a cockerel – so that he could always have a fresh egg for his breakfast! After lunch, the general showed us his three caravans; in the one that he uses as his office we found a bird-cage hanging by the door with six canaries in it. He also has two golden pheasants, and he told us that the entire aviary had been with him right across the desert, through Sicily, and he intended to take them home with him, and, as he said, “There’s only one way home – and that’s through Berlin.” Monty was very nice to Beryl, and he made some nice comments to her that we valued a lot; he said that he thought we had done a good job of work ever since the war started, but the best thing we had done was coming to sing to his boys. It was the only time that two civilians had ever actually been in the front firing line as entertainers. Of course, we were a bit embarrassed by this, but Monty didn’t seem to notice and went on to say that there was another invasion coming before long, he couldn’t tell us when or where it might be, but would we be ready to stand by and and come out when he sent for us.
After our last performance, we had our photograph taken with Monty and went back to Reggio to take the barge back to Messina, where we’d left Harry and Ernie with our gear. One daft thing happened on the boat, Beryl heard some of the navy lads saying that they hadn’t had any bread for twelve months, only biscuits, as none of them knew how to make any substitute. So Beryl went down to the galley and taught all these fellows how to make Lancashire fatty cakes on the bottom of the oven with self-raising flour and margarine!
From Sicily we went back to Tripoli and through the Western Desert and Libya; Benghazi, Bardia, Derna, Torbruk and through the airfields on to El Adem. I remember we did an unscheduled show at the Combined Services Convalescent Home at Ghain Tuffiera for men recovering from wounds they’d received in the Sicilian Campaign. We had only been there for a few minutes when we met an old friend, Flying Officer Bernard Bridge, who had been a staff reporter on the Blackpool Evening Gazette before the war, and used to come backstage a lot when we were working in the summer shows. He had the misfortune to be among the first five to be wounded in the Italian landings, but was now looking very well and almost recovered. At El Adem we joined forces with a South African concert party called ‘The Troubadours‘ and put on a really big show for the boys. We should have left for Cairo the next morning, but unfortunately a big sand storm came up and we were stuck in El Adem for two days with nothing to do except pick sand out of our teeth and wander around the airfield when we could. As usual, Beryl started wandering towards the cookhouse and discovered the largest and only refrigerator in captivity. It seemed a scream to find a fridge in the middle of the desert that worked by gasoline. It wasn’t long before she had six airmen with aprons on, all stirring up some white stuff that became our dinner that night: ice-cream! Eventually the sand-storm died down and we went on to Cyrenaica en route to Cairo, where we arrived on Tuesday 21st of September, very tired, and suspecting that we all had malaria.
It was while were in Cairo that I got into trouble. We had been working in and around the city for a week or so, and on Friday, 1st October we did a show at the Empire Services Club. After the programme, a lot of the lads took us in to the bar and gave us a slap-up party. Someone asked me where all the other stars were. So far as I knew, I was just talking to a bunch of the boys, I’d no idea I was giving an interview, it just happened that among the chaps was the editor of the local paper, and my remarks were picked up by ‘The Union Jack‘, a new forces paper, and subsequently reprinted in the Sunday Dispatch in England, when all hell let loose. If I had known that I was being taken down in shorthand I would probably have been more discreet, but my statements were perfectly true none the less.
I said that most of the stars were where we had left them – in the West End. Some of them gave concerts to the troops, provided that the performances were not in some dreadfully remote camp where there is a shortage of red carpets and cocktails. Some of them appear at the occasional Sunday concert in London. At least one of them, a healthy young man of military age, had his call-up deferred, provided he gave a certain number of shows for the troops. He gives his shows – but sees to it that they are all in London or its suburbs. One musical comedy soprano is always twittering how awfully pleased she would be to sing to “the dear boys in uniform’, but is always finding the proposed dates inconvenient. A comedian whose name is very well-known adopts an even simpler policy; he does absolutely nothing at all beyond starring in in a West End show where the seats are far too expensive for the soldier in the street. Two other celebrated comedians were booked to appear at a show in the north of England, but because the arrangements were not up to a pre-war standard, they threw a temperament and scurried back to London.”
Unaware of the furore that was about to unleash about him, George and Beryl went on into the Canal Zone: Port Suez, Port Said, Ismailia and from there into Palestine across the Sinai Desert by air to Haifa. Beryl said that she would not forget Haifa in a hurry, it was the hottest place that they played in, 128 degrees farenheit (53 degrees celsius) in the shade the whole time they were there, and that followed a frightening air journey when their plane was forced down onto the desert by a sandstorm. After finally getting into their tent for the night, it started to pour with rain. Beryl got out to see where all the water was coming from and before she could get back into it, the tent was on the floor, flattened by the force of the water.
Squadron Leader Ashworth Pinder, a fellow Lancastrian, saw them at Haifa, and wrote a letter to his mother in St. Anne’s:
“George gave a show about eight miles from us, all our mess went to it and it was great. The surroundings were a bit rough as it was an old shed. Nearly two thousand people were packed in and others stood on trucks outside and looked through the ventilators. We sweated and howled for I don’t know how long. The chaps wouldn’t let him off the stage. There were flies in his eyes and mouth, and when he and Beryl came on for their first cross-talk act, a big locust about three inches long joined them on the stage and kept diving round them. I think they were scared, but the audience howled as George kept hitting it with his cap. I know that there are thousands of troops who will retell his jokes for weeks. He gave two shows in the evening and must have entertained about 5,000 troops all told – he should have the V.C.”
George certainly was very anxious about the insect life of North Africa. At one show he raised an unglamorous leg and displayed his knee, covered with round, red, raw splotches:
“I wish I’d brought some good old British insect life with me, I hate being bitten in a foreign language. Next time I come, I’m going to bring a team of Lancashire flies, clogs and all. They seem to do everything big here in insects: scorpions, locusts, centipedes and praying mantises. The one thing I’m really frightened of is being stung by a scorpion – that really terrifies me.”