Dennis Churchill, 93, has recounted his time in the Royal Engineers during World War II, clearing mines and rebuilding roads during the battles to regain control of North Africa and Italy. Juliet Platt met him at Angel Care Home in Haydon End.
Originally from Dorchester, and having attended a military school in Dover, Dennis was working as a hotel porter when war broke out. He joined up at the age of 19 and was assigned to the Royal Engineers. As Dennis had some military experience he was quickly promoted and eventually became a sergeant leading a squad of engineers
He was posted to North Africa where the British 8th Army was being forced back into Egypt by the German Afrika Corps under General Rommel. Recalling his time in the desert he said: “We had to dig down into the sand to make ourselves a bed and kick the scorpions out of the way. General Montgomery was our leader and we had a lot of respect for him; he used to sleep in a caravan near the troops.”
Mine clearance required solders to use a metal detector to locate them before gently probing in the sand with a bayonet to gently dig them out to be disarmed. A number of Dennis’s colleagues were killed or maimed on operations.
He himself suffered shrapnel wounds to his head, and had to spend time in hospital in Alexandria. As quick as ever with a quip, he joked: “I never recovered from it.”
As the famous battle of El Alamein got underway Dennis and his troop were sent into no-man’s land whilst the huge artillery bombardment went on overhead to clear routes through minefields so that tanks and the infantry could make the assault which led to eventual victory.
Looking back Dennis commented: “There was no messing with that German army. It was very pleasant to see them off.”
In the next phase of the war in1943 Dennis was part of the Allied invasion of Sicily and went ashore under fire at Salerno and later took part in the horrific battle for Monte Cassino. His squad was involved in rebuilding bridges and roads so that supplies could reach the front line as the troops fought their way through Italy.
A particular memory for Dennis was when a German soldier surrendered to him while he was working on a bridge. Remembering the incident he said: “He was a big fella; he just put his hands up and wanted to give himself up.”
Whilst stationed at Arezzo near Florence Dennis met his bride to be. Taking up the story his step-son Mike Critchley, from Woodhall Park, said: “A young man came in with an injured foot after a vehicle had run over it. He was accompanied by his sister, Juliana. Something clicked between them.”
After his return to England towards the end of the war, Dennis went back to the hotel trade in Bournemouth where Juliana joined him. She also worked in the hotel and sometimes entertained guests with her singing. She sadly died in 1955 and Dennis moved to Swindon soon afterwards where his younger brother was working on the railway.
He later married teacher Winifred Critchley and worked at Plessys as a machine operator before spending 30 years in the Post Office until he retired in 1985.
Dennis still speaks Italian to this day and can sometimes be persuaded to give a rendition of ‘O Solo Mio’ to keep everyone entertained at the Angel Care Home.