Trooper Robert Proctor, 7911387, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, North African Campaign
Robert Proctor was born on 30th January 1918 at 16, Ashfield View, South Parade, Ossett. His father, also Robert Proctor, had owned Broadroyd Farm on South Parade but died before his son was born. His mother, Elsie Amelia Proctor, had moved from the farm to live with her father, Benjamin Teale.
Robert spent his childhood in Ossett and attended Spa Street Council School. On leaving school, he initially worked at an engineering firm, but in 1936 bought a fish and chip business in Wakefield, just below Westgate railway station. It was while working here that Robert was called up. He was granted a deferment to give him time to sell the business. Eventually he was enlisted at Catterick Camp on 13th June 1940. It was while he was there he was married to Marion Firth, on 15th April 1941. He trained in Islington as a fitter for tanks and in May 1941 set sailed from Liverpool on a troop ship, HMS Samaria. In July 1941 they docked at Durban in South Africa where they changed ships to the IIe de France. Then on through the Suez Canal to Cairo where Robert undertook further training before joining the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, itself part of the Royal Armoured Corps. From Cairo his regiment set out, in late 1941, into the North African desert to join the action - maintaining tanks on the frontline.
He recalled one day, when the Germans caught him by surprise and his vehicle was hit and was out of action, he escaped and jumped onto the running board of a truck. Here he remained for two hours or more, as German shells were falling all around.
On another occasion on 14th December 1942, whilst, having been in the Libyan desert for around a year, Robert recalled that he was in a column of transport late one night, heading towards British tanks on the frontline. It was very dark and suddenly they were intercepted by a German column, part of the battle for El Aghiela. Taken by surprise, with no armoured personnel to protect them, Robert was hit by a bullet in the lower back. He lay on the ground and realised he was bleeding. He tried to get up and creep but couldn’t move. Then, out of the darkness two German soldiers appeared carrying rifles with bayonets fixed. To his surprise they put their rifles down, took out their field dressings, loosened his clothes and bound his wound to stop it bleeding. They then lifted him up and dragged him across to their transport. They placed him on the top of a wagon that, surprisingly, was carrying British petrol tanks. Lying on top of the petrol tanks they threw a blanket over him and drove on through the desert, as he passed in and out of consciousness.
Eventually, as morning began to dawn, they reached the coast road. By this time Robert was in a very weak condition. He recalled that there was a long line of German and Italian transport on this road. They were retreating following the battle of El Alamein. Suddenly, Allied bombers appeared and flew straight down the line of transport. Robert recalled that a lorry, two in front of him, was hit and went up in flames. Robert was thrown off his lorry and found himself at the side of the road. Shortly afterwards someone picked him up and he was put in an ambulance and taken to a field dressing station. He was placed on a stretcher and left at the door. Robert recalled that a German officer came out and looked at him, saying, "Ah, a Tommy, eh?" Robert was taken in and operated on. He was in several field hospitals, then taken to Misurata Hospital and on to Tripoli Hospital where, on 25th December 1942, he again underwent an operation. Robert was eventually taken on an Italian Hospital Ship across to Italy.
On 1st January 1943 he arrived at Naples, at a prisoner of war hospital. Here Robert recalled lines of beds on either side of him as far as the eye could see. Men were dying around him every day. Robert remained in this hospital for three months and during this time never got out of bed, unless he was carried. He then moved to two or three more hospitals, including one in Caserta where he started to learn to walk again. In March 1943 he was moved to a Hospital in Bologna where he remained until 28th September 1943. By this time the British troops were pushing up through Italy, and the Germans decided to evacuate the hospital. Robert was put on a hospital train and taken to Breslau, then on to a Prisoner of War Camp, Stalag VIII B, near the village of Lamsdorf (now Lambinowice), 40 km south west of Opole in Silesia.
In the Prisoner of War Camp Robert was initially placed in the convalescent block. His wound was still discharging but his fitness was returning. Later in 1944 he was admitted to the hospital section of the camp (the lazarett) where he underwent a further operation by a fellow prisoner of war, Lt. Colonel Wilson, a British surgeon previously from St Thomas’ Hospital. The hospital facilities at Stalag VIII B were among the best of all the Stalags. It was on a separate site from the main camp having eleven concrete buildings. The lazarett was headed by a German officer, but the staff was made up entirely of prisoners.
Above: A tank of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in the Libyan desert in 1942.
Robert Proctor had been writing letters home ever since he left England, though after he was wounded there was a long period when he could not write. On two occasions his wife had received telegrams saying Robert was ‘missing believed killed’. Eventually he was able to send a postcard home reassuring her that he was 'alright', followed by an exchange of many letters. Eventually Robert moved to the main camp and gradually his fitness continued to return and he even participated in football and boxing. He greatly valued the Red Cross parcels he received and the men organised auctions of items they didn’t want. Cigarettes were the primarily currency and, as Robert didn’t smoke, he was able to supplement his diet of small potatoes and black bread with tastier items such as cheese and condensed milk. The camp chapel was an important focus for Robert and many other prisoners, whose faith in God kept them going.
Robert recalled that, one day a notice went up in camp saying that there was to be a repatriation of some prisoners, but he was disappointed to see he was not on the list. Eventually, however, in January 1945 Robert’s name did appear on the repatriation list and on 14th January 1945 he left Stalag VIII B from Lamsdorf station. Had this happened just one week later things may have had a very different ending. As the Soviet armies advanced into Germany about 30,000 allied prisoners of war were force-marched westwards in the so called Death March. This started just eight days after Robert left the camp. As most prisoners of war were ill-prepared, having suffered years of poor rations and wearing clothes ill-suited to the appalling winter conditions, many of them died from the bitter cold and exhaustion.
On leaving the Prisoner of War Camp Robert had a five day train journey to the Swiss border. When the repatriation had taken place he continued by train to Marseilles and then on to the south of France. His journey continued by Canadian ship, where he enjoyed the luxury of lined sheets, English newspapers and fresh fruit. He eventually landed in Liverpool in early February 1945. Here there was a very emotional welcome with huge crowds and a brass band. Robert then travelled by transit van to Chester and onwards by train to Huddersfield, where he phoned his wife and arranged to meet her. Robert was granted five weeks leave before being posted to a Barracks in Halifax, from where he was able to come home. He was eventually discharged, following his appearance before a medical board in Morpeth, Northumberland, on 22nd September 1945. He was subsequently awarded the Africa Star with 8th Army Clasp, the War Medal 1939-45, and the 1939-45 Star.1
1. Private correspondence with Philip Proctor who provided this biography of his father.