Secrets and my Recollections of World War II - Tunis

Secrets and my Recollections of World War II

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000

Forward and Backwards and Forward to Tunis

My second Christmas abroad came. We had spam for Christmas dinner, no change in schedule. There were no hostile operations. I had read in Time magazine about Bing Crosby singing, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas", and wrote for and received the sheet music for the song. Some of us tried to sing it, not very successfully. We did have mail call, not an every day occurrence.

Our battalion with the same personnel had a succession of name changes and APO (army post office) numbers in several years, which may be one reason many of my letters complained that mail was not reaching us - or in one, that I had received 43 letters in one day. My letters show that I was in the "Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion (Mobile) (Provisional)";  "560th SAW Battalion"; the "561st"; the "582nd";  the  "2691st SAW Battalion" and the 732nd and 734th SAW companies. In Italy I also was on detached service for a month or so with the 593 SAW Battalion who, fresh from the States, were to become our partner organization. Two fellow filter officers and I were to show them how we operated. Our battalion usually had the designation "Provisional" and/or "Mobile". Perhaps this was to confuse the enemy; it seems to have confused our mailman. Brother Ted was assigned (in the States) to a newly formed radar unit, and wrote me that the SAW designation I had just written him didn't exist!

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Holster for pistol carried through African and European campaigns.

We had a West Point colonel for a commanding officer, but he and the other brass were not technically trained and never came to the operations room or to the radar sites. They did not bother us, and we stayed clear of headquarters (a tent at the edge of Oran Airport) except when our presence was demanded. Possibly in late January or February I was ordered to HQ, and found we were moving. An operations "room" in a semi-trailer had just been received from the U.S., with all the necessities built in, like first class radio and a communications switchboard. Everything seemed better than our ops in the rock. It was heated and air conditioned! One other radar officer (Art Hall) and I with a bunch of British and American enlisted men and perhaps 6 of our dozen radars were not to see HQ again for a number of months, until we were reunited northeast of Tunis at the end of the African campaign.

We moved eastward in a ragged collection of vehicles, few (except the ops van) of American extraction. Some were French, some German or Italian. There were no American water carriers other than 5 gallon jerry cans, but we did have two or three captured German water trailers as we set off for the desert. On the way, our AT&T wiremen stopped frequently to scavenge German telephone cable and other equipment badly needed. As an aside, east of Kasserine Pass we had a several times a week problem: our telephone lines were cut by Arabs who "needed" the wire to hobble their camels at night. We had no proof, but we believed these acts were Axis inspired because they happened so frequently. Having nothing but a hunch, we could not take action to prevent these disruptions to our communications, but noted that salvaged Axis telephone lines seemed never to have been cut.

The Germans had air superiority and continued to have it for the rest of the campaign, the Sicilian campaign, and until the Allies were well established in Italy. Even then, at Anzio, their planes could come and go with little opposition because their airfields were closer than ours. This meant that when you were doing anything, especially traveling, you kept your neck swiveling and eyes cocked for intruders. Regularly the Germans had an observation plane high over our airfields to report when any of our planes were stirring up the dust, ready to take off.

Vehicles in convoy during the day kept possibly 200 yards apart, and at night ran with only "blackout" lights showing, which could only be seen a few yards. No headlights, no night smoking, no flashlights. It made life very exciting. Yes, I was strafed a number of times, and hit roadside ditches regularly.

We (the 561st SAW Bn) had joined the 3rd Air Defense Wing (later designated the 64th Fighter Wing) which arrived from the States February 22nd. 1943 and on the 31st of July our whole battalion  was made part of that Wing, and designated "Provisional Signal AW Battalion." 

We went past Algiers, through Kasserine pass in the Atlas Mountains. We'd park the operations van near a temporary airfield, get the radars sited, and establish communications to them. We now had a colonel (soon to be a general) West Pointer flier type in command, and he was good. One of my letters tells of his drawing a map while a major dug a slit trench for our sanitary use, because the rest of us were busy setting up. Rations were very meager, about 1/3 of normal, and water was very scarce. I remember washing underwear and socks in aviation gasoline which was more plentiful, and came eastward in large semi trailers.

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Signal Corps Knife Pouch.

We moved eastward following the retreating Germans. Our mission was different than before. We still gave warning of hostile aircraft to nearby airstrips and controlled interceptions, but our forward observers were now attached to army units and calling for aircraft support for infantry and tanks. We also had no contact with the navy or French...but Peeper continued to be nearby and helpful. The ops room was much simplified: half a dozen plotters (each connected to several radars or observers); an air corps controller with direct radio contact with aircraft and the filter officer (me or my counterpart). Sometimes we filter officers directed the interceptions if the ops room was shorthanded. The colonel was usually there when anything exciting was happening.

At one of our locations we had one of the observers on a hill overlooking a German tank park about ten miles away from the ops van. Every time the tanks were started, we had someone start our ops tractor, just in case. This happened often enough that the tractor battery went dead - and the colonel hand cranked the beast to life.


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One day in February 1932 one of my plotters stood up and pointed to his headset, a most unusual act. I listened in on his line, and heard someone talking in German! Our radar about five miles away had been overrun, with a number of casualties; the set had been blown up per standard operations procedure, and the debacle of Kasserine Pass was underway. The tractor DID start this time, as did the rest of our vehicles, and we retreated westward toward Algiers, to the western edge of the mountains, to lick our wounds. Morale plummeted.

Art Hall (it could as well have been me) happened to be at the radar that was blown. He was court-martialed and lost a month's pay for doing what he was supposed to do! He was killed at Salerno, Italy.



The high degree of security of American troops from German air attack in North Africa and the effective results obtained there by American Army Air Forces were due "in large measure to the wonderful job done by our Signal Corps, air-raid warning equipment, as well as to our superior air strength", Maj. Gen. Dawson Olmstead, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, has reported to the War Department.

General Olmstead's report was made on his return to Washington from an extensive tour of African, Middle Eastern and China-Darma-India-Theaters. He was accompanied by Brig. Gen. F.G. Meade of the Signal Troop Division of the Signal Corps, Army Service Forces; and Col. Wallace C. Smith of the Office of the Commanding General, Army Air Forces.

"Use of American and British Signal equipment gave excellent coverage in the North African operation", General Olmstead reported. "As soon after the landing as the necessary air raid warning equipment could be placed in service, excellent results were achieved in spotting the enemies planes while they were yet at great distances. This is course, enabled our own air forces to repel them before they got close to our installations, with the result that our troops enjoyed a high degree of security from air attack."

General Olmstead made the trip, "to observe personally the condition of signal communication agencies throughout the areas visited.

We wanted especially to see whether the training we had been giving to communication troops in our camps and schools in the United states was the kind that really fits men for fighting this Second World War." General Olmstead added. "We found that some of our training needed revision, and action has already been taken to make the necessary improvement."

"We found that on whole, our troops were fully prepared to meet the tremendous demands made upon them in getting the message through under all conditions or actions. I was deeply impressed by the words of praise spoken about our signal communications personnel by the commanders they are serving. These commanders gave us so many instances of prolonged performance of duty, in deserts, in the hills of Tunisia, in the jungles of Assam, and in the rolling terrain of China's Yunnan Province as to make such performance seem almost routine for our communications men."

I was sent to try to find a replacement radar. I thought it an impossible job, but at a signal corps depot near Algiers (my first stop), the commanding officer, after finding I had top secret clearance and seeing my orders from a general saying I was to be given anything I asked for, said words to the effect that he had several crates marked "top secret", and did I want to see them. Yes, sometimes the right things ended up in the right place.

On my return, I found our soldiers' mood changed to a very loud bitching. Someone (it turned out to be General George Patton taking charge) had issued orders that everyone would be clean shaven (we had not had a shower in weeks!). Neckties, putties, and helmets were to be worn at all times; boots were to be polished. Rifles or side arms and gas masks were to be carried at all times except when sleeping. It was like starting basic training all over: close order drill and calisthenics daily; rifle inspections; read the Articles of War to the men.

It worked. We became good soldiers again, and when the order came to move forward (eastward), we were ready. Again the climb through Kasserine Pass to start operations at Gafsa and Sbietle and Thelepte and a dozen other hamlets. The "front line" was still nebulous. One morning I was sleeping in my slit trench in a cactus patch half a block from the operations van when a German tank being chased by several American tanks went right over me. They destroyed the German; he probably was lost.

 A second smaller, simpler and more mobile operations unit was started, and I was at this "Ops #2" part of the time. Ops #2 kept closer to the "front line" for better control of fighter bombers helping infantry units. It was in constant communication with the main ops. Later (in Italy) another main ops and its satellite were organized; the second pair either took over as the first pair moved forward or occasionally they played leap-frog.

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64th Fighter Wing Silk Scarf.

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(Click for image/transcript.)


240,000 Germans and Italians surrendered in the final week of the African campaign (page 156 of Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe"). They had far outnumbered the allies, had air superiority but ran out of gas! We moved through Tunis without stopping to sight-see, and went northeast to the Cap Bon peninsula near the town of Kelibia. It was amazing to see thousands of Axis soldiers in their own vehicles (superior to our makeshift ones) headed to prisoner-of-war encampments, with their own officers and military police directing the movement.

Our operations at Kelibia were much relaxed from the previous months: no German Panzers to worry about, and the rest of our battalion caught up to us so we had plenty of help. We were right on the Mediterranean, next to a (former) German supply depot that had many luxuries such as bread, canned vegetables, meat, and a tasty cheese packaged in a tube like toothpaste. I picked up a couple of German Lueger pistols, and shot boxes of ammo with them. I decided I preferred my own .45, for its accuracy and stopping power, and traded the Luegers to a sailor for a cot when I got back to Oran.

We still had intruders, and Peeper. Peeper called one twilight. I suggested to the air force controller that he scramble planes and call the colonel. He looked at the ops table...bare...and (he was a West Pointer, fresh from the States) suggested I had been overseas too long. About five minutes later a pair of low flying Jerries came roaring over, strafing the nearby airfield...and that controller was off to a different assignment the next day.

One day it was "suggested" that all of us not on duty go to a nearby airfield for something special. It turned our to be very special: Churchill was returning from the Big Three (with Stalin and Roosevelt) meeting at Yalta, along with Anthony Eden, Montgomery, and I forget who else. Possibly a thousand of us surrounded Churchill and staff on a truck from which he addressed us. I remember his saying he owed US heartfelt thanks. He took out a movie camera, and he personally took our pictures!

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The good life didn't last long, although the daily swimming and nearby shower setup with new gratis clean clothes made us wish it would continue. I got orders to report to Allied Command Headquarters Algiers with a few of my plotters and three radar sets and their British operators. My first independent command! We loaded into 3 C-47s (DC 3s), and as the only officer along, I rode in style in the cockpit of the lead plane. I had flown before from Milwaukee to New York, and twice on night missions in England as the radar operator. This however was special. The pilot told the copilot to go back to the cabin to relax, and the next thing I knew, and for the bulk of the trip to Algiers, I piloted! I was in heaven, especially when the pilot said he wouldn't mind if I made gentle turns.

Memo - Praise for Early Warning - Air Defense Wing
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(Click for transcript.)

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Saturday, 08-Sep-2018 05:44:14 MDT

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000
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