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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Career of the Woman's Guild "Mobile"

Looking Back

The Career of the Woman's Guild "Mobile"

Looking back to February 1945 – and the wartime journey of the ‘Woman’s Guild’ Mobile Canteen.


 (Extracts from a letter to the Secretary of the Church’s Huts and Canteens Committee from the Rev J H C Ross, Church of Scotland Huts, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, CMF)


I FEEL that I ought to give you some sort of impression of the conditions under which the “Woman’s Guild’ Mobile Canteen has been working; and if I appear to be egotistical, I am so because I am the only one who can give this information. The alternative is silence.

In North Africa – To deliver into the past, in 1941 and 1942 our canteens were attached to the 7th Armoured Division (the famous “Desert Rats”). Perhaps you remember reading about “Mobile columns harassing the enemy”? We used to serve such mobile columns, even during the harassing process. Let me describe one such journey, my last in the desert before gong to Northern Persia. We were sent by Divisional Headquarters to a Brigade HQ who asked us to serve a column. We were given a compass bearing and a number of miles and had to navigate our way to this column. Imagine having to find a few boats miles away on a very lumpy sea. Eventually, having gone two miles off our course and found another column first (needless to say, we didn’t exceed the stated number of mile! The enemy had columns swarming about too!), we found it and sold our tinned fruit and cigarettes and all the good things we had brought. At dusk we got our canteen into line with the other vehicle, and, just as a forward troop of guns came back for the night, there was some shouting and the guns were all prepared. An enemy column was approaching; but it stopped for the night just out of range. We spread our blankets on the sand, and slept in our clothes. Before dawn the troop went forward again and opened fire on the enemy: and after daw we drove to that troop, and plied our trade. On that occasion I saw only one enemy shell as a reply. Having completed the job, we worked our way back by compass.

A year later, after a winter in the desolate and trying wastes of Northern Persia, where conditions, though peaceful, were bitter, we were landing on the toe of Italy; as fas as I know, the first Mobile Canteen to penetrate into the “Fortress of Europe” with a quarter of a million cigarettes and as many odds andn ends as we could cram into our bulging cupboards. Until January we were with the vanguard of the 8th Army – indeed on one occasion I drove beyond our furthest-defended point to perpetrate a little joke; to fix a board painted ‘C. of S. Huts Axis” on a telegraph post, so that our troops could laugh on their way past the following morning. This period was varied. We sold our cigarettes – on one occasion to Scottish troops who had been smoking oak-leaves and tea-leaves. We went to Bari, the largest unsmashed town, to buy any odds and ends that might be useful: including silk stockings for the men to send home as Christmas presents! I plied my trade, as a minister, not as a grocer, in an Advanced Dressing Station, when I couldn’t get my canteen forward. I contrived to have malaria, then jaundice , and went to hospital.

By this time things were getting organised, and the authorities were ready to deal with canteens. Eventually we got a ten-gallon boiler, a tea-urn and ingredients, and opened our first semi-static canteen in a cobbler’s shop in a little village in the Apennines. A local woman baked cakes fo us, and though blizzards kept our shop shut sometimes, we felt quite triumphant to have surmounted all the difficulties. Then we moved to the Fifth Army troops to the River Garigliano. Gradually we enlarged till we had two boilers, several urns, three men, and three thousand cakes per day. But always on the move – from the cobbler’s shop to a tailor’s shop, toa soap factory. Whenever one or other of the battalions in our brigade stopped, we seized a building in their midst, set up shop, and got a local Italian baker to make buns for us, with our ingredients. We furnished the shops by borrowing chairs and tables from neighbouring houses, and with a few hurricane lamps a radio, and of course steaming tea and succulent buns, we tried to help the men to forget the usual sorddidness of their surroundings.

In the meantime I had a few side activities, such as going into the line with a battalion when their own Chaplain was wounded. And a few good Scots laddies we buried, and a few Germans. But whatever happened, whatever any one of our team did (as I said, I have three soldiers) the canteen was open somewhere every day.

In this way my three men ran a canteen with the Divisional rear party (and took £700 over the counter) which I was on the Anzio beachhead for a couple of months. One could scarcely get further forward than that! There I livedi n a dug-out like everyone else – and was glad of it sometimes – and saw that every man in my brigade got a bun a day, irrespective of his location. The Anzio bun became quite a notable delicacy! When the 50th Army linked up with the beachhead forces, my men joined me and we all went on towards Rome.

We came to our present brigade at the beginning of August and we have been doing the same sort of work ever since: moving from place to place, setting up little teashops in farmhouses or in the open air or in battered stinking Italian villages. Since the 7th August we have failed to open a canteen on three days only, and that was because of continued moves.

The terrain and the weather have made things particularly difficult, and there have been occasions when the enemy have been troublesome too. One one occasion they saw the “Woman’s Guild” on a road under their observation and shelled us. But fortunately they missed and, though great lumps of earth hit the canteen, we escaped shrapnel.

At the moment we have our canteen in a cart shed, and a cook I have borrowed from the battalion is making buns in the farmhouse oven. Before this we were in a byre, where, incidentally, our first customer was a deserter from the German Army. Here I was able to hand the men sausage rolls as they marched into the line. Before that we were in a hovel where mules had been stabled. As you can see, on this job one is constantly improvising, constantly surmounting snags – but never giving up. If we were to stop, there would be one spark of cheer less for men who have often to lie in slit-trenches, soaked, cold, enduring great hardships. Many of them have been away from home for a long time, and they face a clever and determined enemy.