As an impressionable teenager, filled with national pride, he was eager to join the army and fight for his country. He enlisted in the South Notts Hussars at the beginning of the Second World War and started a journey that would take him through fierce fighting in the Western Desert, the deprivation suffered in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp and a daring escape to join the partisan forces in the Appenines.
His story is an honest and moving memoir that relays graphic eyewitness accounts of the horrors of warfare, but it also reveals the surprising triumphs of the human spirit in times of great hardship. Ellis’s self-deprecating humor skillfully counters the harsh realities related in a personal recollection of a war that claimed so many young lives. Featuring twenty-six rare photographs from Ellis’s life and experiences, Once a Hussar is a compelling and deftly told account of one soldier’s life in the Second World War.
Skyhorse Publishing, along with our Arcade, Good Books, Sports Publishing, and Yucca imprints, is proud to publish a broad range of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. Our list includes biographies on well-known historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Nelson Mandela, and Alexander Graham Bell, as well as villains from history, such as Heinrich Himmler, John Wayne Gacy, and O. J. Simpson. We have also published survivor stories of World War II, memoirs about overcoming adversity, first-hand tales of adventure, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.
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About the Author
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In the Beginning
My father survived the horrors of the First World War, where he served in the Royal Garrison Artillery, and returned home from France in 1919, which was very fortunate for me because I was born in 1920.
My early years were spent in a troubled world that was still reeling from the shock of the recent conflict. The people of Britain were desperate to forget the miseries of the war years whilst they struggled to cope with the problems of a changing way of life. These were the days of silly fashions and exaggerated gestures, when it was considered smart to dance the Charleston and for women to smoke cigarettes in long holders. Motor cars were now a common sight on the streets and almost every city had tramcars and motor buses, which made travel a great deal easier than it had ever been. Although people still worked long hours, holidays beside the sea were becoming popular during the summer months, but in spite of such changes there was still a great deal of poverty and unemployment as the country was going through a period of depression, and dole queues were a common sight. Some people were desperately poor and had to subsist with the aid of food tickets issued to the needy by the Board of Guardians.
The large majority of homes were without electricity and although many houses had gas lighting some still had to make do with paraffin lamps or candles as a means of illumination. Radio and television were things for the future and for me, as for many other children of my age, a visit to the cinema to watch a black and white silent film was a rare treat. I do not recall having many toys — they were things to dream about — but to compensate I did have the vital element of freedom, which enabled me to wander the countryside around our home without fear of molestation.
My formal education commenced when I was five years of age, but for me school was not a very happy place, largely because my temperament was not at all suited to the conditions imposed by mass education. It would be surprising if any of my teachers remembered me with any degree of warmth because I was far from the ideal pupil. It was not that I was cheeky or disobedient — my upbringing made such behaviour unthinkable. At all times I was very polite and I really did try hard to please my teachers but, alas, with little success. They said that I had a good brain but was far too lazy to use it to any advantage. The teachers always complained I was too easily distracted and spent far too much time daydreaming. The latter was certainly true.
The truth of the matter was that I was bored to distraction for most of the time. There was too much 'chalk and talk' and little opportunity to use one's own initiative, hardly any visual aids to the teaching and no individual attention whatsoever. Everything was served up in huge chunks of knowledge, delivered in long, tedious oral lessons which droned on and on and on, and I would quietly slip away from it all, becoming lost in my own thoughts. Often, at the end of a lesson, a furious and frustrated teacher would discover that I hadn't heard a word that had been said. I must have been a very trying pupil!
In spite of my unco-operative attitude and lack of industry, I quickly learned to read. This was one of the greatest blessings of my life and my everlasting thanks go out to those underpaid spinsters who gave me this skill (There were no married women teachers in those days.). Reading opened the door to a whole new world and I took full advantage of this wonderful gift, reading almost everything that came to hand. I loved reading and consumed books with an insatiable appetite.
In many ways I had a good home, and compared with many of my schoolfellows I was showered with the good things of life. There was always an abundance of wholesome food, all my physical needs were well catered for and there were books that fed my imagination with a host of fascinating ideas that found an outlet in my play. Tales of Robin Hood, Coral Island, Treasure Island, stories from the Great War and history, sea yarns, tales of the outback or the prairies, cowboys and Indians: these were the stuff of which dreams were made. The heroes were always men of courage and integrity, there was no dallying with half-measures, no making of excuses for those of evil intent, and cowards were not to be tolerated under any circumstances. Things were black or they were white; men were either goodies or they were baddies — and the goodies always won, or they died with their faces towards the enemy, steadfast to the end.
I often feel sorry for the children of today, surrounded as they are by expensive toys, radios, televisions, computers, electrical robots of various kinds and numerous plastic articles that carry the name 'toys' but are really just useless lumps of synthetic material. It is sad to see healthy children, bursting with energy, trapped in stuffy, overheated rooms. They have their eyes glued to television screens, while outside the sun shines on empty woods and fields and birds fly unheard and unseen by a generation of children who have lost the freedom that we enjoyed so much when I was young.
During those early years I spent some of my happiest hours with my two older brothers in a hut which father had built for us in the garden. It was constructed from sheets of corrugated iron, nailed to a framework of timbers. In the hut was a slow combustion stove that stood on a stone slab, and there was a long stovepipe chimney that went up through the roof. This hut was the focal point of all our games. Sometimes it was a dugout on the Western Front, from which we would sally forth with bayonets fixed to charge the German enemy across the mud of Flanders. On other days, with smoke pouring from the chimney, it became the engine room, or the bridge, or both, of a destroyer battling against the stormy winds of the North Atlantic. On cold, winter days it was often a trapper's hut or an outpost of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the frozen Yukon. In summer it could easily become a covered wagon from which we fought off hordes of savage, painted, screaming Red Indians.
It was in this way that I played my way through my boyhood days. I was brought up to know where my duties lay. First to serve God by trying to be good. Then to be fiercely patriotic and to serve the King by being brave. I was to emulate the spotless knight, the unsullied hero, the faithful comrade and the soldier who went unfalteringly into battle. All this was rather a tall order for a thin and rather timid little boy who was afraid of the dark and who wouldn't have dared say 'Boo' to a goose.
Most of our games revolved around fighting and killing. The influence of the Great War was still very strong, and death in battle was an accepted part of our play. We would throw up our arms and crash to the ground feigning death from machine-gun bullets, shrapnel or shell splinters. When I became a soldier many years later, no one had to teach me rifle drill: I had become familiar with that long before I was ten years old. I shall never know how many years of my childhood I spent marching up and down our garden path with an air rifle on my shoulder. Being the youngest brother meant that I was always the most junior rank in whatever game we were playing. George and Rupert, my two brothers, could be captains or colonels, even generals if they so wished, but I was always the poor old private soldier flogging up and down the garden path on sentry go. A fitting augury for what was to follow!
During my teenage years my brother Rupert was transferred to another branch of the company which employed him and this meant that he had to leave home and go to live in Northampton. I well recall the great sense of loss I felt when he went away and the eagerness with which I greeted his return each weekend. Almost every weekend for three or four years he came home on Saturday evening in order to spend Sunday with us and in all that time I don't think I ever missed being at the Midland station in Nottingham to meet his train which arrived at eleven o'clock.
How well I remember the excitement of waiting on the old station platform with the powerful engines wheezing and puffing as the trains came and went in a flurry of noise and smoke and steam. There was something very special about a railway station in the days of the steam locomotives; it had its own exciting sounds and smells and a uniquely exciting magic that made it very special. This glamour was to disappear along with the magnificent, fire-eating locomotives that hauled the trains and dominated the whole scene with their majestic presence. I used to love standing there amid all the smoke and bustle watching the minutes tick by on the old station clock as I waited for the train to arrive. We became quite good friends, that clock and I. Forty years later, when the Midland station was refurbished, an enthusiast who lived in the village of Thurgarton purchased this same clock and had it mounted at the side of his house overlooking the road. Nowadays, whenever I pass that way, I always give my old friend an affectionate wave and I am sure it nods to me in return as it keeps ticking on and keeping perfect time.
Towards the end of 1937 my eldest brother George married Barbara Collins in St Mary's Church in Arnold and it was a very happy occasion. I don't think George had ever had another girlfriend and I am pretty certain that he was the only boy she had ever considered, and so their marriage seemed to be as natural as the sunrise. They went to live in a house called Meadowside, which was situated on Spring Lane. Fortunately it was only about half an hour's walk across the fields from home. I say 'fortunately' because George and I, as well as being brothers, were also close friends and we spent a considerable amount of time in each other's company. Barbara and I were also on close terms and I was always sure of a warm welcome whenever I visited them. That was a good thing because I seem to remember that hardly a day passed without us making some form of contact.
In common with most young men I was attracted towards the opposite sex, and I became infatuated with a very pretty girl named Sylvia. I managed to make her acquaintance, but I was far too shy to make my feelings known to her. However, it chanced that we used the same bus into town and so we became travelling companions, and as time passed we became close friends. She was a very attractive young lady, very sweet and kind and with a delightful sense of humour. There were several other girl friends of course, but Sylvia was the special girl of my teenage years. Later on, during the war, she wrote to me regularly for almost three years and her letters brightened many an unhappy day for me.
A continual backdrop of international tension accompanied the years of my transition from boyhood to manhood. The growing strength of Germany under the Nazis was causing grave concern in some quarters and there was anxiety about the Italian Fascists under their bombastic leader Mussolini. It was during this period that I became accustomed to seeing pictures of hordes of fanatical Nazis waving banners of swastikas and screaming 'Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil' as Adolf Hitler passed by in his open car giving the Nazi salute. The face of Benito Mussolini was a familiar sight and the names of Ribbentrop, Count Ciano and Anthony Eden constantly claimed the headlines as more and more countries were invaded and annexed. There were sinister tales of things called concentration camps, where Jews and political prisoners were said to be kept in appalling conditions, often being tortured and put to death. The Rome/Berlin Axis loomed threateningly over Europe and it cast its shadow over all our lives.
With all this going on it gradually became apparent that we were heading towards another war. Not in this case a war to expand our Empire or to further the political ambitions of a king or leader, but a war to protect our country and our way of life from something that was fundamentally evil. New words were added to our vocabulary, words like Dictator, Totalitarian, Blitzkrieg, Panzer, Fuehrer, il Duce, and ... Air Raid!
The thought of another war approaching must have filled my parents' generation with despair. They had already experienced the horrors of the Great War with its awesome casualties, and now, so soon afterwards, another conflagration could be seen rolling inexorably towards them. To make matters worse, the disarmament lobby had been holding sway to such an extent in the intervening years that all our defences had been cut to the bone. It became apparent to everybody that we were ill-prepared for any sort of conflict, and at the same time it was realised that the Axis Powers had formidable strength and were poised to strike against us. The Spanish Civil War had opened everyone's eyes to the horror of aerial bombardment on large centres of population, and there was the dreadful realisation of what could happen if planes dropped bombs containing poison gas as well as high explosives.
The political background to all this can, of course, be read elsewhere: the Polish Corridor, Neville Chamberlain's visit to Munich, Hitler's false promises, Stalin's war against Finland and his treaty with Hitler. All these political moves and countermoves were to affect the course of history and cost millions of lives, but my purpose here is merely to relate how they affected my own humble life at that time and how I reacted to the situation as I saw it.
It was in 1938 that we all began to waken to the idea that the country was in danger and every young man worth his salt wanted to play some part in its defence. It was a period when everyone seemed to be joining some organisation, such as the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) or the Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Some people became air raid wardens and others joined some branch of the armed forces. I first considered joining the Royal Navy, and then I had ideas about the Fleet Air Arm. I also toyed with the idea of going into the Royal Air Force and looked at lots of brochures and recruitment advertisements, but it was the Army that was always at the back of my mind when war was discussed. I could not see myself as anything but a soldier and so, without consulting anyone, I joined the Territorial Army.
It must be confessed that my knowledge of the British Army at that time was scant. I was very impressed with all the Guards Regiments, but I was more familiar with our local infantry regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and it was with the full intention of joining their ranks that I set off for the drill hall in Nottingham on one fine evening in 1938. How strange it is that the very simplest of things can have far-reaching effects upon our lives. Although I was not aware of it at the time, the whole course of my life was to hinge on a decision I was to make that evening. It was a decision that I was to make very carelessly and nothing more than a simple noticeboard influenced my thinking.
This noticeboard was the first thing to catch my eye on my arrival at the drill hall. On it was a colourful sign that read: 'SOUTH NOTTS. HUSSARS.' The truth was that I had never ever thought of myself as anything but an infantry soldier, but now, suddenly, a new possibility had emerged. I could be a Hussar! It sounded very glamorous and I could see myself on horseback, wearing a colourful uniform and wielding a sabre as I charged into battle. The fact that I did not know how to ride a horse did not immediately occur to me. It did not seem to concern them very much at the drill hall either, for when I went inside and asked if I could join their ranks they raised no objections at all!
After giving some details to a sergeant I was taken, in company with another young fellow, to meet an officer, in front of whom I swore an oath of allegiance to King George VI and promised to protect him against all his enemies (rather a tall order, I thought). The officer who was conducting this ceremony winked at me whilst I was repeating the oath and, thinking that he was making light of the whole affair, I winked back. It was only later that I discovered that this officer had a nervous tic that caused him to wink from time to time. I have no recollection of any medical examination but this must have taken place at some later stage. All I remember is putting my signature on a couple of documents and discovering that I had become a Hussar. I was now a soldier in the Territorial Army and I was eighteen years of age.
It soon became apparent why my lack of equestrian skill had not troubled anybody: there were no horses to ride. The modern army was mechanised, they said. It was explained to me that the regiment was proud to keep its Hussar name even though it was no longer a horsed cavalry unit. It was now part of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was equipped with two batteries of guns. The full title was the 107th Regiment, South Notts. Hussars Yeomanry, Royal Horse Artillery. The regimental badge was a silver acorn with four oak leaves, signifying our proximity to Sherwood Forest, and the regimental colours were red, yellow and blue. The two batteries were numbered 425 and 426, and I found myself in 425 Battery, which was equipped with 18-pounder guns. The other battery had 4.5 howitzers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Once A Hussar"
Copyright © 2013 Ray Ellis.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 In the Beginning,
Chapter 2 In Sunny Palestine,
Chapter 3 Mersa Matruh — a First Taste of War,
Chapter 4 In Action near Sidi Barani,
Chapter 5 Gennia,
Chapter 6 Suez,
Chapter 7 Tobruk — The First Battle,
Chapter 8 Life During the Siege of Tobruk,
Chapter 9 The Break-out from Tobruk,
Chapter 10 In the Nile Delta,
Chapter 11 The Battle of Knightsbridge,
Chapter 12 First Days as a Prisoner of War,
Chapter 13 A Nightmare Journey,
Chapter 14 The Winter at Camp 53,
Chapter 15 A Bid for Freedom,
Chapter 16 Running Free,
Chapter 17 Massa Fermana,
Chapter 18 A Journey to the Mountains,
Chapter 19 One of the Family,
Chapter 20 Repatriation,