Military re-enactor Neil Bignell had the chance to have his appearance checked over by a veteran Desert Rat when he attended the annual Desert Rats Reunion and Open Day at High Ash Camp at Mundford near Thetford, Norfolk, in June.
Few surviving World War Two veterans, now in their mid-90s, were fit enough to turn out although about 10 old soldiers, who had once served with the 7th Armoured Division, took part on the day despite the soaring heat.
Driver Alf Jackson had travelled from his home in Llantwit Major. On arriving at the Thetford Forest camp, from which the Desert Rats had left for Felixstowe en route for the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a young soldier dressed exactly as he would have been during the North Africa campaign.
A member of the Royal Norfolk Regiment Living History Group, re-enactor Neil, from King’s Lynn, owns and wears a number of authentic outfits from both world wars.
On this occasion he wore desert ‘KD’ (khaki drill) exactly as it was worn by our troops in North Africa at the battle of El-Alamein and later in the Italian campaigns.
Alf recalls the complete kit: a long-sleeved khaki cotton shirt with underarm ventilation, matching long cotton shorts, heavy black boots and thick woollen socks.
At first the regulation issue for ankle protection was long puttees, which had to be wound round the ankle up to the knee. These were soon replaced with short ankle-protectors that were quicker to put on.
“I had only one correction to make about Neil’s appearance”, said Alf. “His boots were far cleaner than ours would ever have been!”
Neil’s equipment, too, was fully authentic. He carries a Short-Magazine Lee Enfield rifle that dates from World War I.
The 18-inch (45cm) bayonet hangs from his belt in a leather carrier [Editor’s note: it is called a ‘frog’]. These rifles were re-issued to troops in World War Two, and at the start, were the sole piece of equipment carried.
Later in the war, they were replaced with ‘tommy guns’. These submachine guns, producing a high volume of automatic fire, had a much shorter barrel and could be used with one hand from within a vehicle.
Alf had enlisted at 20 in 1942, and learned to drive when working in his father’s mobile grocery business. He served as a driver in North Africa and then Italy, carrying water, petrol, ammunition and, occasionally, officers, up and down the line.
Neil summed up his meeting with a message: “It was an honour to stand alongside Alf and his comrades today. The feeling of pride I have will take a long time to wear off.”