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Company Sergeant Major Cyril Austin

Company Sergeant Major Cyril Austin

1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment

Cyril Austin was born in Bengeo in 1916. A postman by trade, Cyril joined the Hertfordshire Regiment (TA) in 1934 as he was interested in shooting, which took place each Sunday morning at Panshanger Park. Cyril was also a keen member of the Regimental football team organised by Sgt Jimmy Crane. Cyril enjoyed the weekly training at the Drill Hall and annual camps. “(We did) war training: advancing, getting down, firing blanks. You got an object and you got to attack this object, probably walking through a swamp, something like that. Getting down behind a hedge. I remember my first camp, we were lying down firing at the enemy: Sergeant Game came by and knocked my hat off and said, “Cyril, that was a near miss, wasn’t it?” That put the wind up me, I thought it was a bullet – he’d knocked it off! I remember that. That was Sergeant Game, a lad he was!”

Their final camp was at Dibgate, Kent, in August 1939 and when war broke out the Regiment, all volunteers from different walks of life, took on the mantle of professional soldiers, responsible for protecting their local community. “We were about 1200 strong and were split up into two battalions. The 1st Battalion was South, and the 2nd Battalion was North Hertfordshire: which was Hatfield, Watford, Hemel Hempstead, Hitchin etc .Third September, outbreak of war, we were all told to report to the Drill Hall at 9 o’clock in the morning. Keen on it! We all rushed to the Drill Hall that time to know what was happening. Some slept in the Drill Hall for weeks. What we did was guarding different places. One was guarding the Thrifts at Welwyn, which was a government headquarters, other buildings, then training on Hartham. We had communication training, the Sergeants training the Privates, all shouting about on Hartham Common there. We had a concert at the County Cinema and it was there that it was announced we were moving. On the morning we had to take our kit to the Drill Hall, then we… travelled by coach to Dovercourt, Felixstowe and Harwich.”

Cyril’s battalion remained in East Anglia, guarding the coastline until April 1940 when they were moved to the Northumberland coast. It was a difficult winter with up to six feet of snow. The men were billeted in Nissan huts with only a central tortoise stove for heat. Cyril recalled it as a happy time however, partly due to the welcome they received from the locals: “We had plenty to do to occupy our minds. In the evening we used to walk from Brigg, in the camp just outside Brigg, walk into the town into a pub and have a game of darts with the locals. Same as in Almouth in Rothbury, we used to play darts in the locals. We were really accepted by the people living there.”

In April 1943 the 1st Battalion received the order to mobilise overseas. Cyril and his colleagues assumed they were headed for the frontline, but the battalion were directed to Gibraltar:  “We had embarkation leave and on return we were mobilised; drew our kit from the stores, khaki kit and kit bags, and travelled by coach to Greenock in Scotland. At Greenock we embarked on a troop ship to somewhere unknown to us. After nine days at sea we landed at Gib, mostly disappointed because we thought we were going into the fighting line, but it was garrison command at Gib. We were stationed there a while. We used to go training in North Africa.”

The duties at Gibraltar were varied: “Certain sections reported to the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) for local duties: some was coal-heaving, tunnelling, and garrison headquarters guard. We used to have to have a guard on there every morning. Used to change the guard at Government House… We used to guard the Moles. There was the North and South Moles at Gib. That was the piece jutting out to sea. The Navy was there on contraband control. We used to send a section at the North West Frontier across the airfield to Spain, checking the Spaniards for loot. They used to take the cigarettes away from them. They used to see these Spaniards hiding around the Rock with cigarettes rolled up around their waist and the lads used to take that away from them.”

The men still found time to train, though the rocky terrain made it difficult: “We used to do five mile route marches on the Rock. Up the steps and down, going up steps over the Rock, your legs were wobbly when you started going down. About as much as you could do; a five mile route march around the Rock. Mind you, we used to have quite a bit of sport there. On Casement Square we used to play hockey and everything like that there. Keep us fit in PT kit.” Cyril and his friends could not have known at the time  how useful the training on the rock would turn out be but it proved hugely beneficial when fifteen months later the 1st Battalion were mobilised, arriving in Naples in July 1944.

The Battalion travelled towards Florence and collected their equipment. There was no time to get to know the locality or its people, but first impressions were not good: “We camped outside Florence, yes. We hung about outside Naples and Florence to get war-establishment equipment… You wanted digging-tools, and arms and ammunition. We were issued with live-ammunition then. Bren guns… We didn’t think too much of some of them (the locals), some of the villages we went through. Women were doing all the work and the men were sitting around watching them. Actually, in Italy, some places you only go through as they were mosquito areas. We took Mepedrine tablets and all sorts.”

Cyril’s Battalion were sent out on their first fighting patrol on 24th August under Captain Scales. On 1st September Cyril and colleagues began to be glad of their Gibraltar training: “Florence; that was the Frontline. We had to wade through the River Arno to capture Fiesole. That was our objective, we encountered heavy-fire from the enemy, because unfortunately they were on the higher-ground and we were down below in a lot of cases, because its hilly country, and we were often under fire and received quite a number of casualties that way. Fiesole was difficult to take because it was mined. They mined their positions; they were static there and as we were advancing we had to go through the minefields. We had some casualties that way.”

“We got to the castle (Vincigliato). We took Fiesole and onto the castle, but unfortunately at that stage our jeep, which was carrying all the company tools for digging etc., was blown up on a mine on the road and the Officer was killed, which I think was Lieutenant Atkinson, and the driver.”

“We flanked Fiesole and went towards San Lorenzo under shellfire. That was our objective, to take the area… (The Germans) were on the higher-ground and we stayed out in open space all night because when we halted, or started digging, and sent out patrols to recce the Germans positions, so we knew where to advance to and how to flank them, well, we flanked Fiesole under shellfire, because there were 88mm guns and the mortars.  We passed through one of our own companies, No.3 Company. They’d already advanced to one spot at the end of the wood and were digging trenches during the night. We passed through them as a reserve company to get to our next objective. It was quite misty in the morning, but we were spotted unfortunately. We were spotted and came under heavy-fire with the enemy’s 88mm shellfire and mortar-fire. The company commander, Major Kenyon, he was wounded; and also Lieutenant Eames, he was wounded… The officer from ‘3’ Company reserve – I’d sent out a memo saying the officers were awaiting further instructions – the officer came up from company headquarters, we were lying inside a wood, inside the hedge; he came up and I was giving him the positions of my platoons. We were under shellfire and all of a sudden we had a heavy burst of shellfire. He got killed. I got blown up by the mortar, and had my leg torn open and that was the end of my little bit of soldiering in the war. At that particular point I understood there was 4 killed and 18 wounded in that little area.”

Remarkably, Cyril managed to remain calm and recall his first aid training: “I took the shell dressing out of my hat and bound my leg up. Sergeant Johnson was there and I said, “Get me my towel” out of my haversack off of my back. Which he did, and I bound it up so as to keep the wound clean. After that, all of a sudden, he said, “Bugger this! I’m off.” And I haven’t seen him from that day to this! He didn’t get wounded, because I looked at the Italian Campaigns. I don’t know what happened to him. He just went off!… I can often visualise my leg hanging there, and my trousers all split. I can remember that. Visualize that very often. I don’t know why, because I wasn’t in great pain. I’d got my Mepedrine tablets, ate them and I think I passed out by the time the stretcher-bearers come to pick me up… I remember in the hospital when they were dressing it and they said, “No foreign bodies in there”, so it must have just been blast from the shell – it wasn’t shrapnel. I’ve got some shrapnel in my back. Got a little bit in there, shrapnel wound. That’s still there somewhere now.”

Cyril’s quick thinking saved his life, and whilst his leg, despite multiple operations, continued to give him problems throughout his life, it was the experience of watching others killed and wounded that most troubled him: “Some of the worst was when we was in the advance and getting injuries and that, when the fella beside you got hit. I remember one particular case: got a trench dug, we were being shelled; I’d got my binoculars in the trench, so I got hold of those, looking to see where the shellfire was coming from. One dropped on top of the trench and the Sergeant standing there had his leg split open. That’s one of the worst things, anyone getting killed or injured beside you. That’s the worst part, and you can’t always stop to help them.”

British Army Medical Services, 1944, an injured soldier receives a blood transfusion. © IWM (TR 2408)

Cyril was driven by jeep to a hospital camp at Florence; “I think there was about a thousand soldiers under canvas. It was a terrific place.” From there he was flown to Naples and put on a hospital boat to Liverpool before being transferred to a military hospital in Bradford. Flat on his back for three months, Cyril underwent several skin grafts, with limited success. By December he was finally able to start walking again and was transferred to Hertford County Hospital and finally sent home to Bengeo for Christmas 1944. 

The following year Cyril was told not to report back to the Regiment and was sent to Brussels: “Who should I meet there but an Officer who was Hertford Grammar school; he went to school with my brother-in-law. I was well away there! We were just dealing with prisoners of war coming in to England, or displaced persons. They were sent in to see the medical officer, dusted down with DDT, given new kit, and given 200 Francs to spend in Brussels. They came back and we used to call out a certain one for a flight to England, and put them on a plane to England.” 

Cyril’s new colleagues were made up of men like himself who had been injured out of fighting with their Regiments and older men who had served in the First World War.“ I wasn’t with a Regiment, we were all just O and S’s: odds and sods! There were all sorts: old-time Sergeant Major, old-time Captain, he was artillery. Major Lovett was the Officer, he was a grammar-school boy… We were there for some weeks and had to move. We went back into Germany, so we had to get into a convoy… But this First World War Officer, Captain, got in the lorry, got out of the Belgium barracks… “Sergeant Major!” “Yes, Sir.” “You been on convoys?” “I have.” “Get in that front lorry, we’re off to Bremen”. Saucy old bounder he was!”

Cyril was struck by what he saw in Germany: “The next time we moved into Hamburg and all the streets… either side, the buildings were down, but the roads were almost perfect. And you’d see a little pipe sticking out, there was a lot of cellars these houses had, and you’d see a pipe sticking out and people coming out like rats coming out of a hole. They were sleeping underground, more or less.”

Cyril remained on duty in Germany until after the war ended, facilitating the return of British troops: “We went north of Hamburg to Wiesbeck barracks, Panzer Division barracks. Brand new, hardly been occupied. Got hundreds of beds and big buildings. Just lines of communications. Didn’t do anything there, just had a lazy life, just see our troops coming back. Some were prisoners of war. Actually I met one of our own fellas come back who was taken prisoner of war. Corporal Emery, I think his name was, put him on a plane to England.”

Cyril never returned to the Hertfordshire Regiment following the injuries he sustained in Italy, however, after the war he returned to his job as a postman and maintained close links with the Regiment Association, taking part in many Regimental events. Cyril was a highly respected Sergeant Major and it was with deep regret that he had to refuse the request from his former CO, Major Kenyon, to return to train cadets, due to the hours of his shift work.

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