Hilary J. “Poro” Sympson Page last modified:
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Hilary J. “Poro” Sympson
WW-II: In his own words

(Very kindly provided to us by Lorenzo Sympson.
Transcribed verbatim. We added the photos and most of the paragraph breaks.
)

Missing mug shot

H.J. “Poro” Sympson
Lieutenant, c.1942 (later: Captain)
6th Gurkha Rifles
43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade
Indian Army
(Source: L. Sympson)

What did you do in the war Grandaddy?

Bariloche 1/1/1995

(A short story for Nico, Diego, Vero and Guille to give them an idea of what I did during five years during the last war 1939-1945)

“As I write these words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal.  Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship.

Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your camp fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun.  Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds, and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle.  Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you…”

It was early on in the year 1941 when the ship “Highland brigade” slipped slowly from the dockside in the Port of La Plata-Argentina, what I saw when I looked down was my father and mother, my granny Benitz, my uncle Johnny Benitz and his wife auntie Aphra, aunt Jo Benitz, her husband Howard Webster and their daughter Josie, my sisters Rosa, Nancy, brothers Peter and Mickey and last but not least my girlfriend SYLVIA.  My eldest brother Rodney had already left and Marjorie, my sister was on the boat with me.  The previous night my uncle Johnny had given a big cocktail party at the English Club, to send us on our way.  The next morning the paper “The Standard” reported on the party and remarked that I was a rising young star in the polo world? – I am afraid the star never did rise very much, more like a falling star than a rising star-.

The boat was loaded to the hilt with sides of frozen beef and tons of corned beef.  Little did I imagine that for the next four years I would be eating corned beef four times a day, even now all these years later I still like a good tin of this meat.  Our boat was unescorted all the way, the only defense we had was a six inch gun mounted on the aft of the boat controlled by a group of Royal Marines.  Most afternoons we would have target practise, they would sling out a target tied to a long rope and we were allowed to fire off a shot with very little success.  Eventually after a long trip, missing and not seeing any enemy ships we arrived at the port of Liverpool.

Once off the boat we went down to London by train and we were each interviewed by a red tabbed officer.  Now I always maintained that I would roar into battle on the back of a horse, just like my Dad had done in the 14-18 war.  Not so, the officer went red in the face and told me that there were no horses, the next best thing to a horse was a tank, so he sent me off next day to a big tank training regiment that there was in the South of England.

Tidworth was the name of the little town where this huge training camp was and where I spent the next five months learning all there was to know about a tank.  We had to learn how to maintain them first, then drive them, fire the two pownder gun and the machine gun and finally command the tank and its crew.  This usually was four or five per tank, depending on the tank: driver, gunner, wireless operator and the commander.  We would spend all day out on this huge range doing all these things and then we would return to the barracks and have to wash down the tank and do the necessary maintenance before going for a wash, dinner and bed.

After five months of this they must have thought that we were pretty good stuff and we were told that we were bound for overseas but they did not tell us where but we were all sent to London and deposited in a huge embarkation area.  After a few days there we noticed that they started giving out summer clothes and equipment, we then knew that we were being sent overseas somewhere.  The moment we were all outfitted we were put on a troop train and off we went to the North of England.  Off the train we got and marched to a port just outside Liverpool and straight on to a huge big liner which was already packed with troops and down, down we went into those huge holds that were originally for cargo, now turned into sleeping and living quarters for us troops.  There we were issued with hummocks, underneath were long tables and benches for eating and sitting.  We noticed at once that there were no portholes, so we were below the level of the water! Not a nice thought.

We eventually sailed and joined a large convoy, twenty ships or so with a big escort of destroyers and cruisers.  For the next twenty days we endured this, the meals were served to us down below, we were only allowed up on deck twice a day for some fresh air.  When the sea got rough many of the troops were sick, the lavatories usually got stopped up and the general situation was pretty stuffy, to say the least.  Eventually we sailed round the south of Africa and put into the port of Durban.

Luckily for us, those that were from the tanks were taken off the ship and we went to a huge tented area, within a race course and we were allotted tents.  After life on the ship and England, this was just bliss for all of us: no rationing here, there was butter, milk, fresh bread, meat and all the rest, so we were able to have a good tuck in and rest.  So our ship sailed off without us, straight to India.  Then they told us we were destined to go to Egypt, at the time the german troops were practically at the gates of Cairo.  The 8th Army had run out of tanks, and were waiting for new tanks that were meant to be coming from the United States, the famous American Sherman tank, but these were only trickling in as they were rushing them through the Mediterranean where the german submarines were sinking them as fast as they came in.

After this lovely rest, we were put on to a huge great liner Ille de France, a very fast boat, so we went unescorted up the Red Sea and ended up in Port Said.  Off we came and into another tented area but this was no Durban, really terrible the heat, flies and the flying sand made our life pretty hectic.  The arabs were around us like flies, day and night, and we had to keep our weapons strapped to us as they were masters at stealing.

Rommel was on the point of taking Cairo and still the tanks did not arrive for us, after three weeks of this a notice was put up on the board stating that if any of us wanted to go to India and do an Officers training course we could put our names down, so after some thought a few of us volunteered for this.  We had to go before a board of high ranking Officers, a further long wait of sand, heat and flies till some of us were accepted and off we went once again on a ship, Port Said to Bombay, India.

After ten days we arrived in Bombay and went by train down to the south of India- Bangalore, where the training centre was.  There we were given a room each plus a personal bearer.  I remember waking up next morning and my bearer lifted up the mosquito netting and handed me a cup of tea! There I remained for the next four months on this course, hard work but we lived very well, we each had a private teacher to teach us Urdu which was the language that was spoken in India.  We would sit out under a tree every day for two hours learning this language, the rest of the day was taken up with learning how to become an Officer and command troops in action.

Luckily we could play quite a lot of sports, mainly tennis and squash, in our free time which was not very much.  Then after four months of training we were considered suitable to become Officers and command troops, so in a final passing out parade we received our first pip, which we proudly had sown on to our uniforms and walked out as new Officers.

One incident that took place and nearly ended my career as an Officer was the final test before we were accepted, this was a TEWT, which is a tactical exercise without troops.  This took place on a vast Indian plain near Bangalore, it was a night exercise and attack and I had the bad luck to be chosen out of all the possible Officers to lead the attack, so for the whole night I had all these high ranking Officers breathing down my neck “what is your plan of attack?, where have you got your tanks?, your guns, rations?, etc, etc”.  Eventually the attack went through alright and as stated before we all past out as new Officers.

After this and before leaving Bangalore we were all given three choices of what arm or regiment we wanted to join.  This was the turning point of my war career and I must say I never regretted it.  Going way back to the time I was still at school, we used to be sitting round a roaring fire at home and we would try and make Daddy tell us the tale of his life in his war, 1914-1918.  It was hard for us to get much out of him, yes he was in the cavalry and fought the Turks in the desert, when this was over they were sent to France and did a lot of their fighting on their flatfeet, infantry, and he used to mention the Gurkha soldiers that fought alongside them, what wonderful fighters they were, etc.  This always stuck in my memory and added to this, the Officer that trained us in Bangalore was a Gurkha Officer.  He told me not to hesitate, “choose a Gurkha regiment and you will never regret it”.

So I rather sadly forgot my tanks and put down for the Gurkha´s.  My choice was accepted and I went off to join the 6th Gurkha Rifles.  The training centre was a way up in the North of India, a small town called Abbottabad, nestling in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas.  I travelled all the way by train, first to Bombay and then on to Abbottabad, a long two day train journey.  I was met at the station and taken out to the regiment, there I met all my fellow Officers, had a room to myself about 100 yards from the Officers mess.  I had an Indian bearer to look after me, another Indian organized the hot water, etc. whenever I needed a bath, this was a small tin bath tub and another Indian of low caste to empty out the bathroom, so really I was very comfortable.

I soon got into the run of things, here again I had to learn the language, quite different to Urdu, they spoke Gurkhali, but with a mixture of those two languages plus some English, we could get by.  Most of the Gurkha Officers spoke quite good English which was a great help to us.  These Gurkha Officers were wonderful fellows, they were not commissioned by the King but by the Viceroy of India.

Apart from all the training we had plenty of time for sport and the Gurkhas just loved this, football and basketball, we all joined in together.  They were tough little fellows, all youngsters brought down from the foothills of Nepal.  Each regiment was allowed to have one Officer in Nepal whose job was to recruit those young men and send them down to the training centres.  During the war years there were ten Gurkha regiments in India, each regiment, apart from its training centre was made up of four battalions each.  The four that made up the 6th Gurkha´s, three were already in Burma and one was in the Middle East with the 8th Army.

Finally after more or less four months of being in the training centre, the commanding Officer must have thought that I was ready, so one day he called me into his office and asked me if I wanted to go to Burma or to the Middle East.  I did not like the idea of Burma very much, too many Japs and too many mosquitoes and heat so I said I would like to go to the Battalion in the Middle East.

So off we went once again, four Officers and a draft of about thirty men.  We went by train down to Bombay and eventually took another troop ship up the Red Sea, Port Said again train from there, looking for our Battalion up in Palestine (today, Israel), eventually we caught up with them, all under canvas and fighting fit.  They had just been pulled out of fighting in the desert with the 8th Army and were meant to be getting ready to go to Italy.  I noticed right away that they were all pre-war Gurkha Officers, spoke the language perfectly but for some unknown reason they were all slowly transferred to other places and a younger crowd of Officers took over.

Luckily we were lorried infantry and had all our own vehicles to get from one place to another, we were a brigade of three Gurkha battalions, the 2/6th, 2/8th, and the 2/10th.  For about one month we travelled all over the countryside, Iraq, Iran and right up to the Turkish border, training all the time, doing mock attacks with our gunners and tank regiment.  We had about eight tracked Bren gun carriers with us, with a most wonderful group of tough Gurkhas, they had fought many battles when they were in Egypt with the 8th Army.

Of course I was dying to command them and eventually I was sent down to Cairo on a course on these Carriers where I had the misfortune to go down with an attack of jaundice.  I was laid up for three weeks, resting on the edge of the Suez canal.  In the meantime, another Officer had been sent down in my place so I lost out on commanding these Carriers.  By then we were more or less ready to go, Rommel had been kicked out of the desert and was fighting in Sicily, the 8th Army was on the point of invading Italy and here was where we were to come in.

We motored down to Alexandria and got ready to board a huge troop carrier, after some delay we were loaded on with all our equipment and made a bee line for the tip of Italy, Taranto was our destination.  The 8th Army had just landed and taken over the city, there we were unloaded and off we went up the toe of Italy to our first camp.  Our first night there was made quite active for us as german planes came over and dropped hundreds of little fire bombs on us, how they knew that we were there we never knew but it caused quite a bit of panic amongst us all but no real damage.  From there we went into the line for the first time, we were on the Adriatic coast with the 8th Army, there we had the Canadians on our right and on the left some wonderful New Zealand troops.

Most of us were pretty green and after all those years of training this was the first time we heard shots being fire in anger and when the german incoming shells started arriving we soon were pretty good at hitting the ground and diving into our slit trenches.  In my war album there is a famous photo of five of us young Officers lined up having our last “pee” on Egyptian soil.  Only two weeks later, three of them were dead.  Hulley, a little welsh man stepped on a shoe mine and had his foot blown off, we rushed him to the First Aid Post but he died soon after from shock.  I believe poor young Donovan, crouched in his slit trench received a piece of shrapnel in his head and died at once.  Poor young McDougall, a Scotty, sometime later whilst leading an attack in a Kangaroo tank was shot through the heart and died in the act.  These tanks were used quite a lot later on in the fighting, they would take the gun and the turret off, filled it up with ten or so Gurkhas and they would go in behind a creeping barrage that our guns laid down, when the barrage was lifted the Gurkhas would jump out and the tank would turn round and run for it, this was quite successful and we thus avoided quite a few casualties.

I will never forget the first time I went out on my patrol, I was pretty scared, it was a silent patrol, “find out what there is in front of us but no firing”.  I took two very good Gurkhas with me, we left about eleven o´clock at night, it had been raining and the ground was soggy, the area was all vineyards with plenty of wire strung up, about one hundred yards from our forward company there was a cow that had been hit by some shrapnel and was lying on its side, I longed to put a bullet into it as the poor thing was moaning all the time.  So off we went, the three of us, spread out in a steady drizzle, the germans were shelling our lines pretty heavily at the time, I noticed that many of their shells were duds, they would just sink into the wet ground and did not go off.  It was very dark and we could not see much, their machine guns were firing all the time in a fixed line of fire, this german machine gun was superior to our Bren gun and had a very rapid rate of fire.  Eventually after a long wet walk, we came to a big deep ditch full of water, we went down into this and came out on the top when a huge big german stood up in front of us and challenged in gurkhali “KO HO” which means “who goes there”.  The three of us hit the ditch pretty quickly before he started firing at us, we had to stay down in the ditch for some time up to our waist in water, we started working our way down the ditch with the germans putting down a steady machine gun fire and their big guns started putting down a heavy barrage of shells.  When things started to quieten down we managed to get out of the ditch and slowly make for home, the cow was still alive and moaning, I handed in my report and tried to sleep for a few hours.  We never found out why we were challenged in gurkhali, but they must have found out that they had Gurkha troops in front of them, they did not seem to like this.

Early next morning one of our tanks drew up to our war scarred farm house, we were no too keen on these tanks coming too near us as they attracted enemy fire at once.  Anyway the Officer jumped out and walked across to me and at the very moment an enemy shell exploded alongside us and he received a piece of shrapnel that went right through his chest and I was amazed to see that he was breathing through this hole.  I loaded him on to the jeep and sent him back to our First Aid Post, I think he managed to live.

For my way of thinking, the thing that was most useful to us all through the war was the American Willys jeep and on the german side their 88 mm Cannon.  These jeeps were so useful to us all the time, they were hard to come by and we used to loose a lot by enemy fire, they were always in the front line while our soft vehicles were kept well back.

Every ten days or so, we would be replaced by other troops and we would go back and have a short rest, a much needed shower and hot food.  Then back we would go into the line.  I remember that these New Zealand troops were very good at sniping, very superior to us, often they would invite me to go over to them and I would see the wonderful way they set about sniping.  They were good at this because back at home they must have had plenty of practise shooting deer.

Our advance up the Adriatic coast was always slowed up by the many rivers running into the Adriatic sea.  Here the strange thing is that all these rivers were higher than the land so they all had huge high banks built up alongside them to prevent flooding, these of course were an obstacle in our advance as we always had to put a Bailey bridge across to get the tanks and all our stuff across.  How many times did I hammer and bang in one place making out that we were putting a bridge across when in reality it was going up somewhere else.  Luckily these huge high banks gave us good shelter as the germans fairly threw the guns across at us.  The moment the barrage lifted we were able to start our banging again.  We would then get a fighting patrol across the river and the Bailey bridge was shoved over and then the rest moved over and we would continue to advance until we came to another of these rivers.  They are all battle honours we won, river Seńo, Montone and Lamone.

Then we ran into a more mountainous country where we were held up by the germans, winter had arrived and there was plenty of snow around.  At one time we were sent up into a part that was very high and we were given mules to pack our guns and mortars.  They were very lovely big mules and they all had Indian grooms, they said that most of them were from the Argentine so I would talk to them in Spanish.  I do not think that they understood me as they were pretty stubborn and only the Indians understood them, the Gurkhas were not any good at this.  There was thick snow about and really freezing, I remember that we were issued with thick white coats which we never took off, even when we could sleep.

Apart from fighting in the plains and the mountains we were involved in numerous big towns like Forli, Faenza and Bologna.  We were not very keen on this kind of fighting, house to house and usually room to room.  I remember the first one we were involved in was Forli, quite a big city and in one room we entered there was a german soldier hanging from a beam, he had hung himself.  Luckily in the middle of this fighting we were being squeezed out by the Canadian and New Zealand troops on either side of us, we were very happy to get out of that one, the german shelling was very heavy all the time.  Then we rested for a few days and went on to somewhere else.

We were what they called an independent brigade, the 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade, we were not tied to any division, so we were on the move the whole time, wherever we were needed they sent us to take over, so we did not have much time for rest.  Once I remember we got a few days leave and a bunch of us went down and spent a few days in Rome and later when Florence was taken we managed a couple of days there.

I remember little Teckbahadur Gurung, a good young soldier, just about this time when we were in the line he suddenly went AWOL which is absent without leave, he suddenly went off and we could not trace him, about five days later he was found away down in the south of Italy, he was sent back to us under guard and he was court marshalled, found guilty, stripped of his uniform and sent back to Nepal, in disgrace poor little chap, an unheard of thing amongst Gurkhas.  I knew him very well as when I was in the centre in Abbottabad, the CO asked me to find him a good reliable driver for his staff car and I sent him, he did very well and later he was with me when we were drafted out to the Middle East.  I had to sit in the trial and I will never forget his pathetic little face looking at me.

The moment the long cold, wet, snowy winter ended we were able to forge ahead, down from the mountains and into the Po valley, our tanks could really go then as there were no real obstacles that could hold us up except for the wide Po river.  All the bridges were destroyed but a couple of very good Baileys were strung across and over we went and shortly after the war ended, we had reached Trieste and rested.

Our little War Memorial in London, every year on the 11th of November has seven little crosses for dead Officers and sixty or so crosses for little Gurkhas that gave their lives, they are all buried in Italy.

Eventually we were put on a boat and sent to Palestine, took over some buildings and rested.  Many Officers went off on leave, I was told I could have sixty one days leave in the Argentine, so I took off, travelled down to Cairo and then by boat to France, across France by train and a ferry to England where I had to wait for about a month for a boat.  Finally the day arrived and I was off for home at last, arriving in the port of Buenos Aires, there was my Mum and Dad, Peter and Mickey, my granny Bentiz had died and, of course, Sylvia – What do you think of that?

After a wonderful leave we were not allowed to go back, demobbed here, so I never got back to see my fellow Officers and men, which was sad for me really.  And thus ends my war adventure…………

Missing mug shot

H.J. “Poro” Sympson
6th Gurkha Rifles
43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade
Indian Army
(Source: M. Greaven)


© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)