L/Bdr Harold Woodcock – Anti Tank Regiment TA – 1464218
In 2004 Mr Roy Woodcock of Carlisle donated a number of items to the archive relating to his late brother, L/Bdr Harold Woodcock of 1 Troop, 231 Battery, 58th (Duke of Wellington’s) Anti-Tank Regiment. The material consists of photographs and postcards, army service documents and letters, programmes, newspaper cuttings, and five original wartime pocket diaries of which the last entries are in January 1944 when L/Bdr Woodcock was killed while serving in Italy.
Harold Woodcock was born in 1921 and joined the 58th Anti-Tank Regiment, Territorial Army in May 1939 while he was living and working in Brighouse, Yorkshire, England. He attended a fortnight’s training camp in Northumberland in the summer of 1939 and was called up on 1 September 1939.
He was initially stationed in North Yorkshire, at several locations near Ripon, where his regiment was engaged in weapons training and basic drill. Gun training continued into 1940 with spells on Salisbury Plain and in Scotland, and by May 1940 the regiment was at Borden Military Camp in Hampshire. Harold noted in his diary for 29 June 1940:
“…. working at Tilford on the Maginot Line of England”.
This was probably Tilford in Surrey, and the work would have formed part of the anti-invasion defences being constructed at that time.
The regiment was back in Scotland for the latter part of 1940 and Harold’s diaries indicate that his duties consisted in the main of vehicle maintenance and repair with some driving of personnel and stores. Unfortunately the Centre does not hold his diary for 1941, but by January 1942 he was stationed in Kent and, in March, attended a month’s vehicle maintenance course at Sandgate, near Folkestone. While he was there he made a rare reference to an invasion scare as late as 2 April 1942:
“ …. went to pictures in Folkestone. Invasion scare. Went to bed with our clothes on. Dover dive bombed”
Throughout the summer of 1942 Harold was heavily involved with the maintenance of vehicles he refers to as Quads. These were Morris C8 four wheel drive heavy duty vehicles used for towing artillery pieces, sometimes described as ‘artillery tractors’.
As well as their military duties that summer he and his comrades were also helping out with the local harvest, as he wrote on 28 August 1942:
“ …. brought in 4 big loads of wheat” – for which he notes he was paid 2/6d!
Throughout his army service in the UK Harold had regular leave breaks with his family in Harrogate, where his parents were then living, and near Huddersfield where other close family members and friends lived.
In October 1942 he received his stripe to L/Bdr, and from November 1942 preparations for the regiment’s move are apparent from his diary entries where he writes of fixing frames and panniers on the vehicles he maintains and of loading stores.
On 3 December 1942 he wrote:
“…. sent tin kit box home”
so, though not mentioned up to this point in his diary, it must have been apparent to all that the regiment was moving overseas. Sure enough, on 17 December 1942 he and 10 other drivers set off in an advance party for King George V docks in Woolwich. The regiment embarked on the SS Fort Simpson some days later to join a convoy for the Mediterranean. It was a comparatively uneventful trip until on 20 January 1943:
“ …. Med as calm as a mill pond, until the ship in front of us was hit by two torps, it was the J51. Petrol blazing at night, we had a hell of an air raid”
On 22 January 1943 the SS Fort Simpson docked in Bone, Algeria, and 58th A/T Regt landed as part of 46th Infantry Division. After embarkation, the regiment was initially billeted near Beja in Tunisia, taking mortar and shell fire but then moved forward with the infantry. In late February the men of 58th A/T Regt were in action at the Battle of Hunt’s Gap where the German offensive under Operation Ochsenkopf was beaten off and, in May 1943, they were near Long Stop Hill, the scene of heavy fighting the month before. Tunis fell to the Allies on 7 May 1943 but 58th A/T Regt were then still east of the city, in Tebourba.
Harold recorded their entry into Tebourba in his diary on 8 May 1943:
“ … advanced with infantry up into Tebourba. Volkswagen in good order abandoned. Horse harnessed in limber still tethered to house. Our Infantry man said the Germans are getting … good … at running. A welcome change”
Harold was in Tunis himself by June and recorded the visit of Churchill there on 9 June 1943:
“ Mr Churchill. Paraded on the main Hamam Lif – Tunis road while Mr Churchill drove past. Churchill stopped at Hamam Lif for dinner & then bathed in the sea”
Later in June, and throughout July, the regiment was rested back in Algeria working on the waterproofing of their vehicles in preparation for a seaborne landing. By August 1943, they were moved up into Tunisia to an assembly camp at Bizerta where air raids were a particular problem. Harold’s diary entry for 18 August 1943 reads:
“ … went up to camp and collected mail. Tea, dug a bit more at the trench. Good job I did, another air raid. Hell! Yanks throw everything up bar the guns. Rocket cases falling all round. Air raid finished 0100hrs 19th”
They were still in Bizerta in early September when Harold’s diary entry for 9 September 1943 reads:
“… today our boys landed in Italy, we follow up & hope to land in Naples”
It wasn’t Naples however, but Salerno that the regiment landed in on 14 September 1943, under fire from 88mm and mortars which continued until they were moved to Cava at the end of the month. Over the next few months the regiment gradually moved north with the infantry advance. At this time, in addition to his routine vehicle maintenance work, Harold was also driving personnel up to the regiment’s guns in the front line as he noted on 15 November 1943:
“… tank camp at Capua. Took Steve up to front line to lead troop into position. 7th Armd moving out. Pitch black night, raining. A hell of a night”
The last location given in Harold’s diary is in mid-December 1943 when he was uncomfortably camped in a muddy field close to the Rome road, but he did at least have a good Christmas dinner – his Christmas Day 1943 diary entry reads:
“Hot coffee brought to bed by Sgts. Breakfast. Dinner, a real Christmas dinner. Tea, supper. Bed”
There are only a handful of entries in Harold’s diary for January 1944 leading up to his death on the 18th. In the penultimate entry for 13 January he concluded:
“ ….. building a practise ramp for the Garigliano crossing”
The following week, on 18 January 1944, 58th A/T Regt, as part of the British 46th Division, crossed the River Garigliano in an attempt to push back the German forces opposite. This action was part of what became known as the First Battle of Mt Cassino and, though the river crossing was successful, the overall attack then ground to a halt. It failed due to a number of factors – heavy casualties, insufficient reserves and the very difficult terrain and winter weather conditions.
Sadly, one of those casualties was L/Bdr Harold Woodcock. A Royal Artillery casualty card for him notes that he died in the small town of Cocurozzo, approx. 20km south of Cassino on 18 January 1944, aged 22. He is buried in the Cassino War Cemetery and is commemorated on the Harrogate war memorial. Cocurozzo is in the rear of the start position from which 46th Division attacked across the River Garigliano on 18 January 1944. It would take another three hard fought battles before Mt Cassino fell in May 1944 and the road to Rome was open for the Allies.
Thanks to Centre volunteer, Jonathan Fenny, for his assistance in research for this article. Jonathan has an interest in 58th A/Tk Regt as a relative, Major John Wreford Fenny, was also a member of the regiment during the Second World War. He died of wounds at Salerno on 18 September 1943, aged 28 and had been a member of the regiment since 1938 when he joined as a Gunner, rising through the ranks to Major at his death five years later.
The Second World War Experience Centre