The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry was commissioned in May 1794 at the Bear Inn, Devizes, a town that still remains the regiment’s spiritual home. These county soldiers fought with distinction in South Africa and the Great War and at 3 o’clock on the 2nd September 1939, the yeomen received their orders to prepare for war.
Key personnel who could help with the mobilisation process were the first to be called forward; one of these was SSgt Leslie Wheeler from Devizes who served throughout the war as RQMS then quartermaster. One ex-regular NCO recalled some of the younger soldiers’ mothers hanging onto their arms as they left for the drill halls. Many of these young troopers had enlisted underage and would eventually be returned from Palestine.
Military memoirs are often written by senior officers or fighting troops but Wheeler’s detailed and gritty account documents the last years of a mounted cavalry regiment, the excitement of travelling overseas and the rapid transition to fighting from trucks and finally tanks.
The forgotten campaigns of the early 1940s in the debilitating heat of the deserts of Iraq, Persia and Syria are described for the first time from the perspective of a senior non-commissioned officer based within the quartermaster’s team. The ‘Q’ side of any regiment is often overlooked but these men spent long hours driving uncomfortable vehicles over great distances to deliver ammunition, fuel and rations close to the front line.
In 1941 after a brief interlude in Iraq, the regiment, as part of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, was tasked to assault the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The enemy was the well-equipped Vichy French Armeé de Levant which included colonial troops from North Africa and Senegal, Syrian, Druze and Lebanese troops but more importantly the tough 6e Régiment Étrangere d’Infantrie from the French Foreign Legion. A sentiment that is evident when interviewing relatives of wartime yeomen was that the Vichy forces were intensely disliked, more so than the Germans or Italians.
The regiment suffered from both air attacks and the debilitating, relentless heat and the war diary records the entire ‘A’ echelon destroyed by enemy aircraft. The author commented on this early experience of desert warfare at the end of his memoirs :
We had no air cover, non-existent or antiquated weaponry, water was at an absolute minimum and we lived most of the time on tins of corned beef and biscuits
Never had I been so frightened and that applied to everyone in the unit particularly as we had very little means of hitting back at the enemy.
In August 1941 the RWY, the Warwickshire Yeomanry and a detachment of Vickers light tanks from the 14th/20th King’s Royal Hussars crossed the border into western Persia. There was little in the way of opposition and the main threat was now from malaria, smallpox and typhoid. By mid-September, the brigade had met the Russians in Tehran; a joint parade and alcohol fuelled feast followed, the Russians resplendent in clean uniforms that contrasted with the yeomen in their ragged khaki drill from many months in the desert.
A remarkable return journey to Palestine followed, traveling 1300 miles across rough desert in 12 days, mounted in two-wheel drive, open Morris trucks.
Conversion to armour took place prior to moving up to the Egyptian desert and the RWY’s finest hour at El Alamein. The author recalled the horror of the clean-up after the battle:
Trooper X was still at the controls of his tank, but completely roasted. He was a burly man who had difficulty getting into a tank, but when he was removed for burial, he was only a quarter of his normal size.
Released from the Middle East in 1944, the regiment fought north through Italy, the countryside often described as ‘untankable’. A particularly memorable moment in Leslie’s career as QM was when he was called forward to TAC HQ by the CO who had run out of wine.
Stephen Keoghane is the author of 1939-45 As I remember. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry at War, based on the memoirs of Capt. Leslie Wheeler is published by Fonthill Media.
Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.