I was Monty’s driver!
Jim Fraser was recognised for his courage in helping a seriously-wounded officer, and many times cheated death himself out in the deserts of Africa. And then there was Monty... Steven Russell reports
IT’S a moment of relative peace in troubled northern Africa and soldiers are drawing breath before they’re next called into action – making the most of what passes for normality during war-time. The then General Sir Bernard Montgomery, whose military successes will secure his place in history, is moving along the lines of troops in his command tank. Meeting those putting their lives on the line for their country and for freedom, rather than remaining aloof and out of sight, is one of his hallmarks. Most of the men are normally dressed more formally, though, than the soldier about to enter his field of vision – standing naked... apart from a top hat.
“When Monty sees this, the bloke takes the top hat off and bows! Monty returns the salute!” chuckles Desert Rat Jim Fraser, now in his 90s. “The next orders to come out” – with tongue in cheek, it seems – “were that the wearing of top hats was not considered suitable head-dress for the Eighth Army!”
War is dreadful, of course, but those who made it back usually returned with some cheerful memories filed alongside the ones they’d rather forget. For Jim, one of the highlights was being chosen to crew Montgomery’s adapted command tank for a number of months. The commander of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert would use it to visit men and senior officers close to the front line.
“Monty had a ‘big thing’ with Lumsden.” A difference of opinion, that is, with Lieutenant-General Herbert Lumsden, part of the Eighth’s command structure. “Monty said a general’s place was down with his troops.”
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The tank was a converted General Grant model, with the barrel and ammunition removed. A wooden barrel was then affixed so the vehicle appeared to be a regular tank and not the mobile HQ of a key military leader.
“I used to say that when they installed a 37mm wooden gun, we’re going to have wooden ammunition,” quips Jim. “But there was method in the madness, because they needed room for wireless communication inside.”
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It became known as Monty’s Charger. The commander had a little ladder and would get up on the back of the tank to address groups of men. “Break ranks and gather round,” he’d order, and it made them feel special. He’d tell them they were fine fighting troops but leadership hadn’t been right up until then. But that was changing.
It was in the summer of 1942 that a new field commander had been sought in the Middle East. Montgomery was appointed and is generally credited with improving morale and performance in double-quick time.
Jim, who was battle-hardened by this time and almost a veteran of desert skirmishes that appeared to be getting nowhere, says prospects were “in the Last Chance Saloon”. Monty’s arrival was pivotal in improving allied fortunes.
One of the crucial things, he reckons, was Monty’s insistence on information being shared and the ranks being kept in the loop. “He made sure everybody knew what was taking place.”
Out on his travels, he’d stop the tank when he came across a company of tired infantrymen, for example, or a solitary military policeman by a minefield. Monty would get out, shake their hands and introduce himself, and chat to the astonished troops. They were not used to this kind of contact from senior figures.
Word got round that here was someone interested in them, both as soldiers and people, and the Monty legend grew.
Brigadiers, meanwhile, often travelled in the command tank. “There was a plywood map-board, folded. When we stopped, we’d get out and open it up. Monty would then explain to them exactly what he wanted.”
His duties largely over once he’d driven the tank to its destination, Jim attended to his secondary – though crucial – role as “the brew-up boy!”
“I did think some of them were frightened of him,” he says of the officers. Jim would be making the tea as the bigwigs gathered around a chart. “Monty would shout across ‘Make sure they put in the kitty, Fraser!’”
The former tank driver says he got on all right with his illustrious passenger. Did the great man have a sense of humour, though? “Now, that’s a difficult one. What I will say is this: you were all right if you laughed at his jokes!” The implication is that they weren’t always very funny.
When Jim first met Monty, the general wore a wide Australian bush-hat. Montgomery was meant to stay inside the tank, so he wasn’t vulnerable to small arms fire. But he’d been used to travelling around in a Humber car – he had one known as Old Faithful – and couldn‘t stand not seeing where he was going. So Monty would stick his head out and the bush-hat would fly off. The crew had to shout to the driver to stop so it could be retrieved.
Jim suggested his black beret might be better – they’d certainly make quicker progress! – and Monty heard. He wore Jim’s beret for a time before military protocol prompted the making of a “proper” one fit for a leader.
Among the memories of Monty is the occasion he wrote to Jim’s mother. He joked he had little doubt the soldier did not write home nearly enough, “but you have no need to worry; he is in safe hands”.
The driver’s mum thought it marvellous to receive a note from the great man. “There was a bloke in Berechurch Road who later told me that mum was running up the road, holding up this letter.”
Jim also remembers a German reporter asking if it was correct that the general was going to remove the stone marking the battle of El Alamein.
“Monty turned round and said ‘That stone belongs to me. I put that stone there and I’m not leaving it there, for soon it would be destroyed by foreign hands. I’m having it removed and every potential officer that passes through Sandhurst and looks at this stone will see the commemoration of the finest victory that’s ever been won.’”
The Second Battle of El Alamein, in October and November 1942, was hailed as the first major allied land victory of the conflict, with the forces of Rommel driven from Egypt.
The Nazi general Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma was among the thousands of prisoners taken. Jim remembers it led to an amusing moment as the boss’s euphoria seemed to carry him away in his moment of triumph.
“Monty, in the officers’ tented mess, had told von Thoma how we were going to win the war! They had to double the guard and get him down the line as quickly as possible!”
All things considered, though, Monty’s former driver is in no doubt about the brilliance of the general, who later became a field marshal and a knight.
“People said ‘Jock Campbell [a distinguished commander in the Eighth Army] could have done it; so and so could have done this.’ The fact is, Monty did do it.”
He’s Essex by adoption but his Glaswegian roots are still very much there in Jim Fraser’s timbre. He came to Colchester as a lad of 12 – he’s not sure what prompted the move, but it could have been the poverty around Glasgow’s docklands – and went to the Bluecoat school. “I soon made a lot of friends. It didn’t take me long to learn their language!”
He quickly came to love his new hometown. “You’d got Castle Park. Saturday night in Colchester was like Christmas. You’d got Tilley lamps hanging down the High Street, with the selling of goods and bits and pieces... and getting leftovers from Sainsbury’s and Liptons. The place was lit up.”
Jim left school at 14 and got a job with Britannia Lathe & Oil Engine Co Ltd, behind St Botolph’s Church. But his thoughts were often elsewhere.
Initially he wanted to join the Navy, cycling to the nearest recruitment office – in Ipswich! – where he remembers the chief petty officer telling him firmly to go away and come back when he was older!
Before long, it was the army that proved a magnet for Jim, a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia. He was by then living with his mother and step-father in Berechurch Road, with an army recruitment office at the end of the street. The recruitment officer tried his darndest to push Jim towards the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment. But the young man’s heart was set on the Royal Tank Corps (soon to become the Royal Tank Regiment).
He joined the army on Guy Fawkes’ Day, 1937, at the age of 17.
Signing on caused a bit of a row at home. His mother didn’t want him to go, and the household would lose the money he brought in – meagre though it was – but Jim was sure he’d made the right decision.
Early days with the 8th Royal Tank Regiment had elements of Dads’ Army about them. The storm-clouds of war were on the horizon but the unit had precious few vehicles of its own and had to requisition transport.
“We would go out on exercise towards Salisbury Plain: a Humber car leading... brewer’s dray... milk-float... you bloody name it! Motorcycles. Anybody watching us must have thought this bloody war was being sponsored by Wonderloaf!”
Later, stationed in the Canterbury area and waiting for something to happen, troops were put on trains. They didn’t know where they were going and it was difficult to know where they were, as station name-signs had been taken down in case Britain was invaded.
As time went on, they’d lay bets about their destination. Was it Southampton? No; we’ve been travelling too long. Liverpool, then?
“In the morning we had halted in a yard, and facing me was Ibrox Park!” Jim was unexpectedly back in his native Glasgow. Soldiers were later taken across the river and billeted at Maryhill. “It was the same drill hall that I used to go to as a lad, when I was a boy scout!”
From Greenock, men and machinery sailed for the Mediterranean and beyond. Jim was on the cruiser HMS Naiad. In the Med in the late spring/early summer of 1941, as part of this convoy bringing reinforcements – tanks, men and other equipment – the party found itself under attack.
“All hell was let loose, with dive-bombing,” he remembers. “We were more content standing on deck, watching, rather than being down below!”
Reaching the straits between Sicily and Tunisia, near the small island of Pantelleria, the Naiad was heading the convoy. It was using a paravane – a device towed underwater to cut the cables of submerged mines. These would float up and could be set off by gunfire. Unfortunately, says Jim, a mine hit the cargo liner Empire Song, which was carrying nearly 60 tanks, 10 aircraft and some trucks. It sank.
His subsequent exploits in the Middle East merit a book in themselves. Unfortunately, we’ll have to telescope his experiences and pick out a couple of memorable incidents. (Highlights is the wrong word...)
In November, 1941, he was caught up in one of the Battles of Sidi Rezegh, near the Libya/Egypt border. It was the young man’s first major action – and would earn him the Military Medal.
“As we were coming round the bend, as you would call it, there was all hell breaking loose. The air was thick and you could hardly see a thing,” he recalls.
“We swung round and I saw this bloody big 75mm gun – presumed it was, anyway; didn’t know and didn’t care! – coming right towards us. I pulled on my steering sticks and was swinging round when it opened up.
“It hit the side, the tank shuddered, but it had taken a glancing blow. I took my own decision that we should get out of there. I was pulling round when it followed and opened fire. It was a direct hit, but what happened was lucky – one, that we were diesel; the other, that the shell had embedded in the engine and nothing exploded.
“We couldn’t bale out because there was that much fighting going on, and we had to spend the night in there. It was a big battle; tanks all over the place. You’d be in the midst of a cauldron.”
The crew emerged in the morning, once the intensity of the encounter had subsided, to a vista of bodies and burning tanks.
Their officer, standing on the turret with his binoculars, then got shot. Half his leg was nearly blown off. “It was that severe you couldn’t move him. We put a tourniquet on, but in no way was that going to do the job.”
Jim, then a lance corporal, took over. The crew tended their injured colleague as best they could while their driver set off into the desert to find assistance – not that he knew where he was headed. Luckily, he came to a British dugout and managed to take the helpers back to the tank. The injured comrade was taken off by field ambulance.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, his vehicle again rolled into Hell. The tank commander was killed, the gunner lost a limb, as did the wireless operator, and Jim suffered third-degree burns. In the middle of January his family received a stark form from the Army Record Office, regretting to have to inform them that Lance Corporal James Fraser had been seriously wounded.
It offered sympathy, but could give no more details or say to which hospital the soldier had been taken; “but directly any further information is received it will be at once communicated to you”.
An incident is also described in John Parker’s 2004 book Desert Rats. Jim is quoted, explaining how the tracks were blown off the tank.
“We baled out and rolled underneath, which normally one wouldn’t do because the tank is a main target and the General Grant was in any event a mobile crematorium with its high-octane fuel. We had no option. There was machine-gun fire and heavy shellfire. It was a thousand-to-one chance that a heavy explosion came underneath the tank, lifted the tank, and when I came round, three of the tank crew had been killed.”
Moving away from the vehicle, Jim was hit in the leg by machine-gun fire. He was sent to Tobruk and on to hospital in Alexandria or Cairo. This was in the summer of 1942. He rejoined his unit in the August, just before Monty took command of the Eighth Army.
Jim stayed in the military for 22 years in all, going on to serve in India as independence approached and Korea.
Back in Civvy Street he became a postman in Colchester and got heavily involved in the trade union movement at local, district and national level. Jim also served as a councillor.
“I’m 90-odd now, so that isn’t bad,” he says.
Then he remembers something about his Military Medal, awarded for moving under fire and getting help for the officer shot in the leg.
“The interesting thing about that, I found out afterwards, was that the initial recommendation was for a DCM (the Distinguished Conduct Medal) and then I found out that Auchinleck (Sir Claude, commander-in-chief, Middle East) had reduced it to the Military Medal!”