Episode 12: My Grandfather’s War with Scott Edgar

By the Second World War, Alex Liggett was a 30-year-old Corporal in the Royal Tank Regiment. From Portadown to Palestine, Dunkirk to demob, this is his story.

Podcast Embed

'A Wee Bit Of War' by Scott Edgar

Released on by WartimeNI

Running Time: 26:01

  • Military History
  • Social History
  • Irish History

Tracklisting

  1. My Grandfathers War

My Grandfather's War

This year is the tenth anniversary of my first hearing about the old American cemetery at Lisnabreeny. Therefore, it's an unofficial tenth birthday of sorts for WartimeNI. But, anyone who knows me knows that my passion for all things Second World War goes back much further... to Saturday afternoons in front of black and white movies, to family tales of daring prison breaks and tanks racing through the African deserts. I'm Scott Edgar, and this is the story of my grandfather's war.

Transcription

Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and well, it’s been a busy old time at WartimeNI HQ and a few planned podcast episodes have slipped through the cracks. However, recently we’ve been watching the second series of the Channel 4 documentary ‘My Grandparents’War’. So far, this series has featured actors Kit Harrington and Kiera Knightley… And, while I’m no Hollywood A-Lister, I thought t

This year marks ten years since I began writing about the Second World War in Northern Ireland. In 2012, I heard a story about an old American military cemetery not far from where I lived at the time. I put on my hiking boots, took a walk up the National Trust-maintained path through Cregagh Glen, and discovered Lisnabreeny. I began to research. I took some photographs. And so began the formative beginnings of what would become WartimeNI.

Second World War history was something I’d always had at least a passing interest in. I studied the Weimar Republic at school but lessons halted before we delved into events post-1939. It was when I was much younge,r however, that my interest in the conflict was piqued.

Like many kids born in the 1980s, I grew up at a time when Second World War movies were popular on T.V. There were many Saturdays spent watching The Battle of Britain or A Bridge Too Far. This was mostly done at my grandmother’s house in Portadown in, Co. Armagh. Rather than pointing out that the tank was the wrong tank or criticising the realism of uniforms, my granny would dispense little snippets of information: Oh your granda drove a tank like that in the desert… One day while watching The Great Escape… Did I ever tell you your granda escaped from two prisoner of war camps?

Just straight-up facts, no fanfare. To her, it was just a normal part of their lives. To me, as a young boy, it was the stuff of superheroes.

My granda died in 1986 when I was 5 years old and my younger brother was a baby in arms. We never really had the chance to get to know the man, but we heard all the stories over the years. My actual memories of him are fleeting. One such memory is of him having to carry me out of a sinking pit. We’d gone for a walk through a new housing estate under construction and I’d wandered into the soft-laid concrete foundations of someone’s new home. He hauled me out and found a discarded polystyrene chip carton to wipe down my shoes.

Inadvertently, I’d stumbled into my first unknown Second World War site. The housing estate now stands on what was once a prisoner of war camp in the grounds of Irwin’s Castle in the Killicomnaine area of Portadown. It would be several decades before I knew that of course. And like all good researchers of historic sites, back in 1985, I left only footprints.

My granny was well-known for telling the odd tall tale. In more recent years, however, research into my grandfather’s war has proven her stories of Sergeant Alexander Liggett to be a little embellished but entirely true. So, who was my granda?

Alexander Ligget was born on 29th April 1909 to a decorated hero of The Great War in the Corcraine area of Portadown in Co. Armagh. Known as Alec, he appeared on the 1911 Irish Census at 58 Obins Street with his father Joshua Liggett, mother Mary Liggett, and older sister Mabel, known as Maisie. A few years after this census, Joshua Liggett would be in France with the Royal Irish Fusiliers. In 1916, he became a father once again as Mary gave birth to a daughter also named Mary but known as Molly. 1916 was also the year that Joshua Liggett received the Distinguished Conduct Medal but that’s a story for another day.

What little information I have gleaned – and Irish records are hard to trace due to a fire at the National Archives in Dublin in 1922 – it seems that Joshua Liggett may not have been the first of the family to enlist in the British Army. He certainly would not be the last.

On 23rd April 1925, my grandfather followed in his father’s footsteps. He traveled up to the city of Armagh to enlist in the Tank Corps. We’ll never know what drew him to this relatively new strand of the army. We do know, however, that well into the 1980s, people around Portadown would tell you that Alec Liggett drove every car he ever owned like it was a tank. If you saw him approaching, you’d do well to get out of the way.

Records held at the Tank Museum in Bovingdon, Dorset list Liggett’s age as 18 years and 3 days old. The reality was, he was 4 days shy of his 16th birthday. Employed as a linen weaver, he was too young to drive but old enough it seems to be at least considered for operating a tank. He wrote down his address, 71 Charles Street, Portadown. He gave Joshua’s details as his next of kin. Signed up. Ready to go. And so began an adventure that would take the young Irishman all around the world.

Records of my granda’s early years in the British Army are sketchy at best. Anecdotal evidence suggests that perhaps his youthful age was found out, leading to his reenlisting in 1930. For the following five years, he served as a reservist, first training at Aldershot and Catterick in England. In the early 1930s, even that must have seemed a world away from life in Northern Ireland, working in the linen trade on the banks of the River Bann. Soon, though, Alec would be departing on a much bigger adventure.

For several years, he served in both India and Palestine. All the while, the news back home and across Europe told of the rise of the Nazis. The continent was heading for war and perhaps those already serving such as Alec Liggett could see the writing on the wall. There was plenty to distract the young Irishman in India. During those formative years in the army, he was a keen sportsman. He boxed. He played football for a number of regimental teams. Stories handed down through the generations suggest he even played field hockey for the Indian national team.

We had always known of his love of sports. It’s a family trait. His daughter, my mother, played field hockey, and Alec’s brother Billy was a big talent in Irish League soccer. You might not think it to look at me, but in my youth even I caught the sporting bug and for a few years played schoolboy rugby in the same team as someone who would go on to be a legend of the Irish international team. So yes, we’d known all about the football, the hockey, and the boxing… But there was something we didn’t know. Something that turned up in my research that took the whole family by surprise.

On 10th August 1931, the 22-year-old soldier married Patricia Smith in Lahore, West Bengal, India. Why’s that a surprise? Well, Patricia Smith is not my grandmother. Patricia Smith is also not the mother of my step-uncle. We’d known Alec was married before he met my granny… But, wait, he was married before that too?

On 20th February 1932, Patricia gave birth to a daughter, Dawn Liggett. And yes, I’ve done the maths so you don’t have to, that’s only 7 months after the wedding. I don’t yet know what happened to end the marriage but both Alec and Patricia would later remarry. Patricia’s second husband adopted Dawn, and Alec’s third wife would become my grandmother… the woman who introduced me to those war movies.

His second wife was a local girl from Portadown who he married on his return from India. She sadly died not long after giving birth to their son Gordon. In the next few years, Alec would meet another young woman living in the town, Kathleen Burns.

They married on 24th April 1937 in St. Mark’s Church in Portadown and set up a home at 10 Bright Street in the town. Alec had returned to civilian life, resuming his old occupation as a linen weaver with the firm of Hamilton Robb Ltd. who operated from River Lane. However, by 1938, the threat of war in Europe was very real. On 13th October 1938, Alec returned to Armagh and signed his name on enlistment papers. Alexander Liggett. 7877628. Royal Tank Corps.

In 1939, the British Army began to reorganise in preparation for an inevitable war. The Royal Armoured Corps formed on 4th April 1939. On formation, it was a loose collection of the Royal Tank Corps alongside some Horse Cavalry Regiments. The corps would grow throughout the Second World, and Liggett found himself in 7 Royal Tank Regiment.

May 1940. My granda was 30 years old. An experienced veteran of India and Palestine. A corporal. And, he was off to France with the British Expeditionary Force. 7 Royal Tank Regiment departed alongside 4 Royal Tank Regiment and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. Both tank regiments occupied a secluded forested area southeast of Brussels in Belgium. On 10th May 1940, German forces invaded the low countries and began their blitzkrieg attack. Some tankmen had little time to train. Even in simple terms, many of them had never driven a vehicle on the right-hand side of a road. Soon, they came up against Stukka dive-bombers, Messerschmitt ME 109s, and the unprecedented obstacle of roads choked with thousands of fleeing refugees.

By 21st May 1940, 7 Royal Tank Regiment was in the thick of fighting alongside 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. The Tank Regiment consisted of 23 Matlida Mark I Tanks and 16 Mark IIs. Confusion reigned and imposed wireless silence hindered the Regiment. As too did the slow speed of the heavy Mark II tanks, the congested roads, and the network of trenches dating back to The Great War.

In the chaos, 7 Royal Tank Regiment achieved some success, taking out 2 Anti-Tank Batteries, 2 German Tanks, and an 88mm Gun. Casualties, however, were heavy and among the dead was Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel H.M. Heyland D.S.O. Crews from 4 Royal Tank Regiment and 7 Royal Tank Regiment gave a good showing but suffered heavy losses.

What remained of the Regiments, returned to England across the English Channel on 27th May 1940. Without vehicles- abandoned and destroyed during the retreat to Dunkirk – the soldiers made their return on a pair of Isle of Man Steam Packet Ferries; ‘Mona’s Isle’ and ‘King Orry’. Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart said of the campaign:

It may well be asked whether two battalions have ever had such a tremendous effect on history as 4 RTR and 7 RTR achieved by their action at Arras. Their effect in saving the British Army from being cut off from its escape port provides ample justification for the view that if two well-equipped armoured divisions had been available the Battle of France might also have been saved.

Following the Dunkirk Evacuation, 7 Royal Tank Regiment under new Commanding Officer R.M. Jerram, Adjutant Captain Jock Holden, and Regimental Sergeant Major Fowler, reformed at Fleet in Hampshire. The Regiment undertook 6 weeks’ training at Perth and Kinross, Scotland.

On 21st August 1940, 7 Royal Tank Regiment were once again bound for the front. Soldiers and Matilda Mark II Tanks arrived at Port Said, Egypt just over a month later on 24th September. In utmost secrecy, the Regiment moved on to Maaten Bagush, Egypt, concealing tanks beneath Bedouin tents, and moving only under the cover of darkness. In the Western Desert, the Regiment supported 11th Indian Infantry Brigade as part of the British Western Desert Force.

On 5th December 1940, Western Desert Force began their advance on Sidi Barrani. Operation Compass was underway, and on 8th December, a diversionary attack allowed the tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment to take position. A Squadron took the lead, followed by Regimental Headquarters, B Squadron, and D Squadron. Caught unaware, the 23 Italian Fiat tanks were soon dispatched.

Despite coming under artillery fire and attack from Italian planes, A Squadron, B Squadron, and Indian Infantry seized their objective. Having taken several thousand prisoners of war, the Regiment rallied, refuelled, and rearmed. The next advance on Tummar West was also a success with 2,000 Prisoners of War taken and only 7 Royal Tank Regiment soldiers injured. Tummar East soon fell and by nightfall, much-needed repairs could be carried out on the Matildas. The successful advance of 7 Royal Tank Regiment continued and by dusk on 10th December 1940, Sidi Barrani was taken.

By 27th December, the 22 Matilda Mark II’s of 7 Royal Tank Regiment were 90 miles west of Sidi Barrani, closing in on Bardia. There, they supported 6th Australian Division and the Bardia Garrison surrendered on 7th January 1941. Several members of the Regiment were recommended for awards, and Major General I.G. Mackay (Australian Divisional Commander) claimed that each tank of 7 Royal Tank Regiment was like an extra Battalion to him. Soon after, the regiment adopted ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as the Regimental Quick March.

The progress across the Western Desert continued apace and 7 Royal Tank Regiment took part in the assault on Tobruk on 21st January 1941. Now down to 18 serviceable Matildas, they took the garrison by 1700hrs the following day. The attack took another 25,000 Prisoners of War, 87 ganks, and 208 guns.

The advance of Western Desert Force came to an end on 12th February 1941 when the British Government ordered General Wavell to halt. Soon, air support diminished and experienced Brigades broke up to focus on repelling the German invasion of Greece.

By 24th April 1941, the Greek Army had surrendered and the British Forces on the Mediterranean island were overrun. Meanwhile, General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps had made moves in North Africa. In the desert, tank crews began to hear German songs such as ‘Lili Marlene’ coming through on their wireless.

Having arrived in Tripoli in March 1941, Rommel’s forces bypassed the British at Tobruk and reached the Egyptian border by 13th April. At Tobruk, D Squadron, 7 Royal Tank Regiment repelled German attacks along with 2 Squadrons of 1 Royal Tank Regiment and the rest of 9th Australian Division.

Wavell launched Operation Battleaxe on 15th June 1941. The aim was for 4 Royal Tank Regiment to lead 11th Infantry Brigade and 7 Royal Tank Regiment with 4th Armoured Brigade to seize Fort Capuzzo. Battleaxe was a disaster, and the tanks were outclassed by the new 88mm guns of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The British Forces lost more than half of their tanks on the first day of the operation. By the 3rd day, 17th June 1941, British tanks had withdrawn to avoid being encircled by the Germans and Sergeant Alexander Liggett’s war in the desert had come to an end.

On 17th June, my grandfather’s name appears in wartime documentation. It’s on Casualty List No. 568. Updated records from soon after, show his name on Casualty List No. 587; no longer a casualty, officially missing. By Casualty List No. 600, the latest information was that the Sergeant was a prisoner of war in the hands of Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Only 7 weeks earlier, his wife Kathleen back in Portadown had received an aerogramme saying Sergeant Liggett was “fit and well”.

On 25th July 1941, the Portadown Times newspaper reported:

Mrs. Liggett, 10 Bright St., Portadown has received official intimation that her husband Sergt. Alexander Liggett, Tank Regiment has been reported missing.

Throughout the summer of 1941, word filtered back of the fate of those missing in the Western Desert. On 1st August, the local paper once again carried an update on the missing Portadown man.

News has been received by Mrs. Kathleen Liggett, 10 Bright St., Portadown, that her husband, Sgt. Alex. Liggett, Royal Armoured Corps, is a prisoner of war. Sgt. Liggett served for seven years in India and Palestine. His father, Mr. Joshua Liggett, won the D.C.M. in the last war.

So, where was Alec? Back home, an anxious Kathleen awaited news.

By 1943, Sergeant Alexander Liggett was a prisoner of war at Camp 53. The camp, known as Sforza Costa stood next to the railway lines around 12 miles south of Macerata on the east coast of Italy. Prisoners marched about a mile from the station to the main camp buildings, which had once been a sugar beet refinery.

Opened in 1942, the Capital E-shaped camp was built of thick reinforced concrete. The middle section contained the entrance through a large archway. The north and south wings were tall storage buildings used to hold captured men on one floor with no dividing walls.

The camp stood in a six-acre open area, surrounded by a no man’s land of 15 feet between a 10 feet inner fence and a 30 feet outer fence. Coils of barbed wire topped both fences. Every fifty yards stood a wooden sentry post with a machine gun armed guard.

A Blackshirt Colonel ran the camp. He had taken part in Mussolini’s “March on Rome”. While most of the officers were elderly, they received help from the local Carabinieri or police force. There were two interpreters in the camp when my grandfather was there. The first, was known as “Harry’s Brother” was a waiter, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had worked at the Savoy Hotel in London. The second, known by “Wee Jock” was from a respected Glaswegian ice-cream selling family. He had returned to Italy for his grandmother’s funeral.

In 1942 and 1943, the number of inmates rose from around 2,000 to over 8,000. The camp was not designed for this many people. There was only one toilet block with a dozen “squatters” and three running water standpipes.

Sergeant William Cooper provided details of the camp. He also claimed the British administration was “too friendly” with the Italian guards. Higher-ranking officers were able to smuggle in food and wine for themselves but those in the lower ranks could never smuggle in escape equipment or radios. When the Italians withdrew from the Axis in 1943, the British administration even offered to take over. They would stand guard over their own men until replacement troops arrived.

My grandfather escaped from Sforza Costa in 1943. It’s likely he escaped along with around 1,000 other inmates on 15th September 1943. They took their chance to walk straight out of the camp while unguarded. The Italian guards had left after their country surrendered and it took several days for German guards to replace them.

Lenn Dann talks of the escape in his book “Laughing, We Ran”. He claims the British officers paraded their men in the recreation field on the day the Italians left. A senior officer spoke of a separate peace and warned them there was no need for “bloody silly heroics”. Those who ignored his plea made their escape after their evening meal. They had no idea when they would next get a chance to eat.

The prisoners of Sforza Costa all had similar stories. Many found themselves captured in North Africa during the Tobruk campaign. This was one reason for the swell in numbers in 1942. Those who fled the camp in 1943, headed for the mountainous countryside. Italian families in rural areas gave them a warm welcome. They fed and clothed the men and in some cases gave them work and a bed for several weeks. Before his escape, my granda had written home. In a letter dated 8th March 1943, he wrote:

8th Letter. Dearest Kathleen here is another letter to you. I’m still going strong, but I still wait for a first letter from you, and of course I’ve had no parcels yet. Still, I’ve got nothing else to do so I can wait.

One of our chaps has died here and he had a lovely funeral. All the soldiers lined the road and some of them walked behind the coffin. It was very impressive. He was married 18 months ago in England. He was only with his wife about a fortnight before he went out to the East. It’s pretty hard lines on her and his mother, still it’s the war and these things will happen.

[Censored]

There is nothing more to say in this letter as nothing ever happens here. I still love you as dearly and I’m longing for the time when we can be together again. I’m always thinking of you sweetheart and I’m always talking to other chaps about you. I’m very proud of my wife. I’ve got no photos. Will you send some darling? You can send in an ordinary letter costing five pence.

Cheerio darling. xx Alex xx.

By 1945, Sergeant Alexander Liggett was a prisoner of war at Stalag IVB, Muhlberg, Germany. There are no details of how he came to be recaptured and issued with the P.O.W. number 263765. Following his “escape” in Italy, friend and fellow escapee Terry Moriarty had written to Alec’s wife to let her know he was alive and well.

The Muhlberg Stalag or Stammlager was the largest prisoner of war camp on German soil by 1945. Over 10,000 men found themselves contained in a rectangular compound measuring 1.0km by 0.5km. Today, the area is a dense forest. Ruins of latrines still hide among the trees. There are also carved stones dedicated to the memory of those who did not survive the horrors of that camp. Stalag IVB also served as a Soviet Gulag and held German prisoners following the Second World War. While imprisoned there, on 3rd February 1945, my grandfather wrote a postcard home.

Dearest Kathleen, it’s now four months since I heard from you and I don’t think you are getting any from me but I’ll keep on dropping a line just in case one gets through.

I’ve made you another remittance of £20 and I hope you get them both, that is, one from me for £15 and this last one for £20. When you get it give five to my mother and tell her to buy something for herself.

Cheerio darling. All my love, Alex.

The letter from Italy, and the postcard from Germany, I have in my possession. I also have the three medals awarded to Sergeant Liggett for his wartime service.

For seeing active service between 3rd September 1939 and 2nd September 1945, Sergeant Alexander Liggett received The War Medal. The added Bronze Oak Leaf signifies he may have been Mentioned in Dispatches. He was also a recipient of The 1939-1945 Star, and The Africa Star.

Also among this collection is a Christmas card from South Africa. In December 1946, my grandfather received the card sent from Port Elizabeth. The sender was another former prisoner of war at Stalag IVB, Harry Rose-Innes, author of ‘Po Valley Break’. Whether my grandfather and Rose-Innes were together during the latter’s documented and semi-fictionalised Italian escape remains a mystery.

A little over two months after the end of the Second World War, Sergeant Liggett was a free man, demobbed and returning to Northern Ireland. Like many former prisoners of war, he went back to civilian life, undernourished and placed on a special post-war diet. He took up work at Wilson’s Canning Factory on Castle Avenue in Portadown.

He would later work in the local Post Office in the sorting office for 27 years until his retirement. After this, he worked for a short time in security at Craigavon House until his 70s. My grandparents had four children of their own. That youngest daughter would in later years have a son who would become a bit of a history nerd with a fascination for the Second World War, and a love of podcasting.

I don’t know how my grandfather would feel about his story still being told after all these years. He was a quiet man who didn’t speak much about his wartime exploits. In fact, he was often quick to chide others who revelled in their glory days. An often quoted sentiment in the family was “the war is over, take the gun off your back”.

However, the family remain proud of his service, intrigued by his time in the camps, and keen to find out more about his time in the army before and during the war. Undoubtedly, there are more stories to unearth, but for now, this has been the story of Sergeant Alexander Liggett, my grandfather’s war.

Subscribe to A Wee Bit Of War on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favourite shows. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your co-workers. Break all the rules of the Official Secrets Act, and why not leave a review to help others find the podcast? Thank you for joining me on this episode. I look forward to your company again next time for another Wee Bit Of War.

© 2022 WartimeNI | Design & Development: Scott Edgar | Hosted by: Big Wet Fish