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Flt. Lt. Tom Russell recalls ....

"The Car"  ... And a Marvellous trip to Algiers.

On the 11th May 1943, our troops had entered Tunis and the end was in sight.  Some fighting was still going on around Enfidaville, but we were able to get to Tunis through Pont Du Fahs.

So, on the 13th a few of us decided to go looking for a car that we could use to explore our new surroundings  ... but without any success, although one or two of the luckier lads managed to find a vehicle right off.

Two days later, with Brian Harris, I again went back to see what I could find.  Still no luck, but we managed to bring back a Fiat for F/Lt Miller, a fellow from another squadron.  When we got back, we saw that Bobby Gibbes had returned to the Squadron with an Alfa Romeo, which he had persuaded an Italian General to give him.  It was a beautiful car, worth about 1,600 pounds.  Bob was posted to England and he was to be driven by Ted Tunbridge in the Alfa to Casablanca.

On the 16th they gave me a lift into Tunis.  I was on my own now, but still on the prowl, searching for a car that wanted a new owner.

Then ... magically, I found one.  Walking along one of the streets, I saw a 1938 Continental Chevrolet, parked on the wrong side of the road, nose to nose with a correctly-parked Renault.  The keys were in the ignition!!  Across the road was a building which the Americans were using as their Headquarters, with two armed guards on duty outside.  ...What to do?

I decided to walk around the block.  On the way round, I met some ground crew boys, to whom I offered a lift back to the Squadron in "my car".  

One of them said, "You haven’t got a car Tommy!"  I told them I would have one in about 5 minutes - to which they promptly replied they would wait for me along the road!

When I reached the car, the guards were still there, and there was a fellow in the driver's seat of the Renault.  I thought, "Here goes!" and got into the car.  It started OK, but I had to back away from the Renault.  The leather grommet was missing from the bottom of the gear shift stick, and it took me a lifetime it seemed to find reverse, but find it I did, and off I went.  A clothes brush, found in the glove box, showed that the car had been in the temporary care on an American Colonel!  Back at the Squadron, I found Jimmy Kemp, who agreed to work on the car for me.  In about two hours, with the help of Sid Bell and Jackie Rae, we had the color changed to 8th Army sand color, a new engine number, a new set of tyres, and the letters CV and a number on the door.  Jimmy and I worked on it most days, the engine was given a terrific service, and it started and ran beautifully.

On the 30th Jimmy took the car to Medenine, where he stayed overnight.  When he got back the next day, we found the left rear main spring was broken.  Couldn’t get one, so some South African blokes who had a workshop nearby, made one for me. I had also had a couple of trips without any trouble, one with a few of the boys down to see Tex Harbour in 21 MRS at Sousse (he'd had an appendix operation), one with Bob Dent, also with "Doc" McLeod and "Dingle" McKernan to Tripoli about 420 miles away.

Our new C.O. Brian Eaton came back from a trip down to Cairo, and gave us six days' leave.  He didn’t tell us that some of us were to move to Malta.  So I invited Jimmy, "Doc", and Johnny Howell-Price to have a trip to Algiers with me.  Jimmy was a Corporal and the other two, Sergeant Pilots.  It seemed that it would be better if we were all officers, so I used my spare stripes, and elevated them to Flying Officers.

 We left on Sunday 13th June at 4.30 pm, had dinner with some friends of Jimmy's, then moved on, driving all night, and in spite of the water pump playing up, we arrived at Tunis at about 7am Monday.  The pump was making some funny noises, and we were trying to find some unit where we could replace it.  Luckily, between Tunis and Medjez El Bah, we came upon a dump of old vehicles, found a pump to suit, fitted it and were on our way.  Lunch at Medjez then on again.  We passed through places that had seen some fighting, but none were as devastated as Sousse, Sfax, or any of the places on the 8th Army side.  The country was beautiful - a treat to our desert-weary eyes.  The road ran over and around mountains that reached a height of some 6,000ft, past deep gorges and through lush valleys, that presented themselves to our view at every turn of the road.  

 MEC0916
Official Photographer Laurie Le Guay's photos of Algiers and the beautiful surrounding countryside can be found here.

At about 5 o’clock we arrived at Souk Ahras, and were about to go on to Gwelma, 50 miles away, when an MP told us the road was bad, and a large convoy had just left.  Had a look around the town, saw nothing of any interest with the exception of a remarkably pretty girl of about 17.  She was sitting at the window of her flat - with her parents behind her - contact impossible!  Next morning to Gwelma, ... omelettes, toast and coffee at the Officer’s Club, then on our way to Constantine.

The country in this area, especially approaching Constantine is by far the prettiest of the trip, worth coming a long way to see, very much like the area around Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales.  Booked into the Officer’s Club, a shave a bath, then to the American Red Cross to deliver a message for Reg Stevens.  Had dinner with a W/Cdr who had given Bill Sponberg his O.T.U. training in England.  Did my Tiger Moth training at Narromine with Bill ... sadly he was killed on the first 1,000 bomber raid.

The next day before leaving, I placed an order with N.A.A.F.I. for tea, beer, whisky, chocolates, cigarettes etc. telling them I was the advance Officer of a small unit of 6 officers and 140 men, then on to Setif.  On the way we dropped some papers in to an American Hospital at St.Arnand.  Met a couple of very lovely nurses ... one had really beautiful grey eyes.  We were going to have dinner with them the next day, but as we went on to Algiers that night, we were deprived of their company.  We were to stay at Setif, and booked in at the Officer’s Club, but after dinner a Padre arrived from Algiers, telling us it had taken him 6 hours to do the trip.  As the car was full of petrol, (we filled up every time we saw a petrol dump ... me signing each time, being the only genuine officer), I suggested that we should drive through the night.

We left Setif at 10 o’clock and arrived at Algiers at 6.30am.  Booked into the Hotel Radio, then went for a walk around the city, while Doc used the car to try and find some fellows he knew, who were with a unit there.  Met Lawrie Le Guay and a Flying Officer Linnett, had a drink with them, then found a shop where I bought Nean a blouse and collar (about the only things you could buy without coupons) then met Doc and the others for a drink at the Aletti Hotel at 5 o’clock.

Left Algiers at 7am on Friday, made Constantine for lunch, loaded the boot to capacity with the stuff from the NAAFI, then on to Gwelma where we stayed the night, and left early in the morning for Bone.  Unfortunately we had an accident about 17 kms outside Bone, the car skidded right around blowing both back tyres.  Johnny and I got a lift into Bone where I managed to get two tyres and Johnny one.  The accident eventually resulted in a claim for damages against the RAAF (the CV on the door gave them our identity).

 

Later, when the first enquiry came to the squadron, Reg Stevens, who had become CO while Brian Eaton remained in hospital in North Africa, simply replied that no vehicle of that make or number was on the strength of 3 Squadron.  He knew about the car of course, but also knew that it had been taken to Alexandria by Jackie Rae and Frank Samers.

Much later, after I'd left the squadron, I was instructing at Abu Sueir, RAF Base near Ismailia, which is close to the southern end of the Suez Canal, giving pilots on their way to 239 Wing, a conversion on to Kitty’s.  It turned out the Boffins had found me, and I was called into the Group Captain’s office, where he showed me a foolscap sheet of paper, with lots of questions on it about the car, and asked me what I had been up to.  By then, I'd been on the base for some months, and had a good relationship with him, so I confessed and told him all about it !

It turned out that he was not too displeased.  To the 1st official question, "Where did you get the car?", he creatively suggested that I had found it abandoned between Kairouan and Tunis, and he made similar helpful observations to answer all the other questions.   I was very thankful for the attitude he took, and I never heard another word about it.

Editor's Note: To see John Howell-Price's recollections of the Algiers trip, click here:

Tom adds .... MURRAY KNOX also scored a car  ...

Sometime in June 1943, Murray Knox got himself a really nice 4-cylinder Fiat tourer.  He raced it at Kairouan against Jack Bartles, the C.O. of 450 Squadron, but Jack won.  Although the Fiat would corner like a Mini, it was hopeless on the straight.  One day whilst dashing around the station with Arthur Collier as second dicky, the vehicle rolled, pinning Murray underneath.  It was thought at first that he had broken his pelvis, but it turned out there were no broken bones, but there were some very badly strained muscles, which seemed to indicate that he would not be able fly ops again.  Murray left on a hospital ship for the Delta, and that was the last I saw of him during the war.

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