Extracts from Syd Hunnisett’s letters to Win Winchester 1942-1944
The following extracts are some of the more interesting bits from letters my dad sent to my mum during the war. None of the letters sent while he was abroad say where he was so I have guessed where he might have been based on records of where 3204 SC were based. However, while that prpobably gives the rough area, it may not always be entirely accurate. Most letters were dated but some weren't so I have had to rely on postmarks for a few.
The first letter I have was sent from RAF Defford where Syd had been stationed for the best part of a year, and where they developed, tested and installed new in-flight radar systems.
from RAF Defford, Nr Pershore, Worcestershire
Mum sent me a paper from home this week, and I see they’ve had another raid or two, and although no names are mentioned, I think they had a big one opposite where I used to work [Syd worked for Bobby’s, Terminus Rd, Eastbourne] which caused considerable damage to the front of our shop. Dad works there now but I think he was at home at the time of the raid.
Syd applied for Service Commando training and was accepted. 3204 Service Commando Unit was formed at Martlesham Heath in February 1943.
22 March 1943
from RAF Martlesham Heath, Nr Ipswich, Suffolk
I’ve been working in the office for a couple of days, out on the kites yesterday, and on lorries this morning.
28 April 1943
from RAF Martlesham Heath
I’ve had a grand swim this morning, and another one yesterday. They seem to have grabbed me as a regular swimming instructor as whenever anybody goes swimming, I’m taken off what my section is doing and I have to go with them. That suits me because you know how much I hate swimming, don’t you? [Syd won medals for swimming when still at school]
Final training in waterproofing vehicles for beach landings, and the use of landing craft was carried out in Scotland. Most of 3204 went to "HMS Brontosaurus" the No:-2 Combined Training Centre - at Castle Toward, near Dunoon, Argyle and Bute, although a few went to "HMS Quebec", the No:-1 Combined Training Centre, Inverrary, on Lock Fyne.
20 May 1943
from RAF Martlesham Heath
… on the course we were on the go all sorts of hours of the night and day, and since we’ve been back we’ve been pretty busy. As a matter of fact we’ve only just finished work, and had a wash and shave, and it’s now 10.15 ….
They do hire out sailing boats at Woodbridge, but I’ve only had one chance to go there, and that time there was so much wind they wouldn’t let us have one out. I was rather disappointed because that’s just the weather I like best for sailing.
31 May 1943
from RAF West Kirby, Wirral, Cheshire
[Personnel dispatch centre]
… We haven’t had a day off for 6 weeks…
Talking of oranges and bananas, what do they look like? I can hardly remember. [Win had seen some at Kew Gardens!]
11 June 1943
from Eastbourne, at the end of a week’s leave.
Will you thank your Dad for the mascot and good wishes. I’ll always carry it and I reckon it’ll bring me through OK. If it was good enough for him for four years of the last war, it’ll be OK for me.
I got home [on Friday] to find they’d had a raid in the morning, and there was quite a lot of damage done, but none to our house, but on Sunday we had our windows scattered to the four winds and one or two minor bits of damage, but no-one was hurt, that’s the main thing.
from SS Ormande, en route
At the moment I am sun bathing on the upper deck, it’s a grand day and there’s nothing to do except wait for tea time.
I don’t suppose you’ll hear from me for some time now, but don’t worry, I’ll be ok. The devil always looks after his boys.
Wed, xx July 1943
from SS Ormande
[date censored! Probably 7th July]
… we are still enjoying our little trip on the briney. It’s been all too calm up ‘til yesterday, but there’s a bit of a chop running now which makes us roll and pitch a bit.
The food aboard here is jolly good. It’s nice to have pure white bread, and we are able to buy sugar and tinned fruit and jam, so we don’t do at all bad. Cigarettes are rationed but we get 50 for 1/3 twice a week so that’s plenty for me. The only inconvenience is the overcrowding, but we can’t grumble about that in these times can we?
3204 SCU landed between Syracuse and Augusta on July 19th , nine days after the initial assault, and were dive-bombed in the process. Having no transport or equipment, they marched to a transit area at Noto (ca. 30 miles), before going onto Pachino.
28 July 1943
from Pachino, Sicily
This isn’t a bad country to live in, there is plenty of fruit and nuts just waiting to be picked, which was just as well for the first two days as we only had the food we carried in our packs, but now the compo rations have come up we are doing fine. The food is really first class, we are cooking everything for ourselves at present on wood fires but I expect eventually we may get a cookhouse going.
I bet you’d laugh to see our little village of shelters made from bamboos and foliage, all in among the almond trees. We were eating almonds last night until we fell asleep with the nuts beside us. That sounds a little bit hoggish doesn’t it?
The climate got us down when we first arrived but we’ve pretty well got used to it now. …. There’s usually a nice breeze off the sea.
I’m afraid we’ve almost stripped this area of melons, trying to keep cool, but there are still plenty of lemons and tomatoes. The oranges, figs and pomegranites and locust beans are not ripe yet.
A thing we miss quite a bit here is the whistling of the good old English birds, in fact there are very few birds at all here. We have to put up with an incessant chirping, but I haven’t been able to find out what causes it yet. It’s either a large cricket, about 2½ inches long, or a kind of lizard. Anyway almost every tree has its own little band of chirpers and we can’t escape it wherever we go.
Air-raids happened most nights, with the one on July 28th being particularly bad, resulting in two 3204 casualties. The transport and equipment was finally landed on July 30th, and 3204 then went to Lentini to work on 152 and 154 Squadron Spitfires.
12 August 1943
from Lentini, Sicily ?
Once again I’m writing a letter with very little news and nothing much to write about…..
The oranges are good out here and there’s plenty of prickly pears growing wild. You should have seen us trying to pick them at first, we had prickles in our hands for days afterwards. Then a local lad showed us how to pick and eat them. They are very nice and they quench your thirst when you can’t get water.
We found a grasshopper yesterday, 4 inches long, carrying another, about 2½ inches long, on its back. I tried to catch it to show the lads, while Rex had his hat ready to put it in, but it flew out of my hand. The big one had red wings and the other one orange ones.
2 September 1943
from Lentini, Sicily ?
I’ve received two letters dated July25 and 28 and an air letter dated Aug 18th. You can’t imagine how pleased I was to hear from you again….
We are trying to get up another concert this week. The one we had a week or two ago wasn’t a great success but we’ve got hopes of doing better this time.
Time passes very quickly out here, it doesn’t seem any time since we arrived on the island, and yet it seems ages ago since we were on the boat.
7? September 1943
from Lentini, Sicily ?
….. I’m guard commander tonight and I’ve left my pen in camp, so as I can’t leave here to get it, I’ve sharpened up a piece of bamboo and am doing my best with that.
It’s rather unfortunate me being on guard tonight as we’ve got a concert. Rex started running it and then conked out with malaria, so I carried on for him and now I’m out of it too, so I hope it goes off alright. …. Rex is my pal, the other electrician corporal.
The news from Italy is good isn’t it? A few of our chaps were in the town when it was announced over the radio and they had a devil of a job getting out of town and back to camp. Everybody wanted to give them vino and shake their hands. In fact the town went crazy.
13 September 1943
from Lentini, Sicily ?
We’re being kept pretty busy at the moment. I can’t tell you where we are, as you know, but it’s quite comfortable here, despite its several disadvantages, and it’s lovely and peaceful at the moment. The biggest form of activity is the Sicilians grape picking. They start coming through the camp on mule carts and donkey carts about three in the morning, and there is a constant stream of carts all day long, full ones going into the town and empty ones going out. I’ve only seen about 3 or 4 Eytie cars since I’ve been here, everybody uses donkey carts or bikes.
20 September 1943
You say “how are the flies and insects?” Well the rest of the insects are OK but the flies, I think they’ll drive some of us barmy soon. There are thousands of them and they will insist on having our dinner before we do, and then they are not satisfied, they have to feed on us then.
I’ve got an Eytie camera but can’t get any film yet, but if I can get a film sometime, and the permission to use it, I may be able to send you a copy of my handsome smiling fizzog. Still I’ve got no luck at the moment.
We are able to say now that our first sight of land on our way over was the coast of Spanish Morocco lit up at night. That looked strange after being used to the blackout. Then we anchored off Algiers for a night and went on to Malta before coming here. I wondered if I might see my pal at Malta but we didn’t get the chance.
29 September 1943
Yes, we’ve made some very good friends over here. One chap who does our laundry for us (or at least his wife does it, he fetches it from the camp) His name is Muccio Sebastian and his son Giuseppe is 10 years old. He says he is coming to England after the war to work for Rex in his Radio shop.
There is a family in town we often visit for an hour or two in the evenings. I don’t know their name. They are Mamma, Pappa, and two girls, Rosita and Tina. The two girls get very excited over the funny way we say things in their language, and you should hear them sing, they’ve got lovely voices.
Everybody seems to sing or play some instrument here, and whenever you go to anybody’s house they are lashing out the wine and nuts all the time, and they don’t like it if you refuse.
From Lentini they moved to Catania for a short time, before moving onto Messina in preparation for the crossing, via the "Straits of Messina" into Italy, as a follow-on to "Operation Avalanche" This was the invasion of Italy, on September 9th, by USA and UK troops at Salerno. 3204 landed at Reggio di Calabria on September 24th, but didn't stay, instead moving on quickly, via Taranto, to Gioia del Colle four days later.
October 8th saw another move, via Noci, to Lecce, where they worked with 3230 SCU until just after Christmas.
28 October 1943
I expect you are wondering why I haven’t written for some time. The fact is, we haven’t had a chance to write or post letters, and I really don’t know when this one will get posted, but I’m writing while I’ve got the chance.
We are in Italy at the moment and we find it quite a lot cleaner than Sicily. In parts it’s much more modern too, but where we are, we’ve gone back again to mediaeval times. It was quite like a cowboy film last night to see all the farmers from the houses within a few miles, apparently come to the main farm house to eat, and there were about 25 or 30 all turned up on horseback, tied their horses up outside and rolled in for grub.
All up the south western tip of this country is wonderful mountain scenery, and I think the Italians reputation as road builders is sure a true one, but it’s rather flat here and quite cold in the nights and mornings.
I’ve managed to get a snap taken of our electrical section and one or two of the wireless mechs, so I’ll be sending you one as soon as I get the chance.
24 November 1943
I haven’t had a letter from you for about 3 weeks now. It seems like 3 months. In fact our mail seems to have gone astray somewhere.
25 November 1943
Well here I am again. I didn’t finish this last night as somebody shouted “Mail up” and you could watch my progress by the trail of dust left in my wake. There were only two of us out of bed at the time so we collected the mail for the other six and staggered in under quite a pile. I got 16 letters and two papers.
This morning I had a disappointment. I must thank you very much for sending that parcel with writing paper in it, but all I received was the wrapper and the note you’d put inside. Several lads got the same, as our mail lorry got raided, so I wasn’t alone. Still, these misfortunes will happen, won’t they?
I think you’ve got me wrong in regard to our concerts. I ask you, can you imagine me on the stage? No, I’m one of the back room boys, I help with the donkey work and do the lighting.
6 December 1943
I’m sitting on the edge of my bed, with an ammunition box as a table. You’d be surprised to see how comfortable we make ourselves. Out of the eight in my tent, six of us have made beds. Mine is two struts from an old Italian kite, two ends of a bomb crate, and a piece of canvas. We’ve got a wireless set and electric light. Of course we’ll lose it all when we move, but you bet, we’ll find something else. What a life!
You asked me what the shops and houses were like. Well, in the bigger towns most of the shops are very similar to ours and the appearance of the streets is quite similar. But the shops in the smaller towns and villages usually have no window and there is nearly always a bead curtain over the door, so you have to look inside to see what they are selling. It’s a bit embarrassing to look in and find you are in somebody’s private sitting room I can tell you, that’s happened to me several times. It’s a good job I can make myself understood in Italian. I got an invite to dinner that way once.
The houses vary. Some are quite nice, with a hall and rooms on either side and others are just one or two rooms. Almost all of them have a big room at the back, or sometimes it is the front, and you have to go through it to get to the house proper, where they keep great barrels of wine, and that’s where the donkey lives, along with the chickens and rabbits and all the rest of the family. All the floors are stone, the ceilings are way up miles, and the windows are blessed great high ones, usually reaching from the floor like French windows only much higher than ours. And of course they’ve all got balconies.
17 December 1943
Near Lecce?, Italy
I’ve taken your mum’s example and got myself stuck in dock for a while. It isn’t serious, just an attack of jaundice, but here they have to be technical and call it infective hepatitis, just to make us think we are ill. This is rather a novel way of going to hospital because all the treatment I need is a special diet and a bit of rest, so I get up and go to bed just when I feel like it – what a life.
By the way, Rex is in here with me with the same thing. Apparently we’ll be in here for about 3 weeks as far as I can make out, so I’ll have Xmas here. I wonder what I’ll get for my Xmas dinner. We mustn’t have anything with fat in it.
This is a grand place here. I’m sitting on my bed on the veranda overlooking the gardens, and through the trees I can see the harbour with the town on the other side. So you can bet your life I spend some interesting hours just looking at the harbour.
24 December 1943
Near Lecce?, Italy
You’ll be pleased to know I’m out of hospital. They’ve moved me to a sort of convalescent camp. We are billeted in a large building in a town. In fact I believe it used to be a hospital.
It’s Christmas eve now and I’m still on a fat free diet, so I suppose I can say goodbye to my turkey and Xmas pudding. Still why worry, there’ll be thousands much worse off than just missing a blowout, won’t there?
…. I’ll be very very glad when I can get back to the unit and get on with some work.
30 December 1943
Near Lecce?, Italy
We had a very quiet Christmas here. On Boxing day we were able to go into the town to see a concert given by an RAF squadron nearby, and the next day we went to the same place and saw a film, Conrad Veidt and Joan Crawford in “Above Suspicion”. That was a good film and it all broke the monotony of lying around all day reading books we’re not really interested in.
Still, I’m hoping to be away from here in a few days, and back to my unit (if I can find it). I’ll be very glad to get back to work again.
The town here is a dirty little place, typical of most of the smaller towns, and it isn’t worth visiting, anyway it’s out of bounds to patients unless there is something on at the cinema. Though why it should be beats me, I’m sure it would do me good to have a walk now and again.
7 January 1944
Near Lecce?, Italy
I’m still at the same place but I’m feeling as fit as a fiddle, so I don’t suppose it’ll be long before I’m back at the unit.
I’m glad you liked the snaps. They were taken in the grounds of the school in Sicily where we lived for just over a week. That and a week in Italy is the only time we’ve been in buildings since we’ve been over here.
3204 SC had actually moved on 4 January, via Brindisi, to Bari Main Aerodrome.With the Germans in retreat, moves to Molfetta, Foggia and Naples quickly followed - the stay in each often being only a couple of days. At this time there were "rumours" they'd be going home - as a Unit - to take part in the European invasion. In the event it turned out to be just that - a "rumour" - and the SC units then in Italy were told they were no longer required. Syd eventually rejoined his unit on 27 January, although I don’t know where they were by then.
31 January 1944
I’ve found the unit after a lot of running around and when, after travelling on almost every conveyance you could think of for about a fortnight, we found the lads at last, we got the surprise of our lives. [probably the news that they were shortly to return home]
It’s just like spring here at the moment, the sun is shining but as it’s only just after breakfast there is still a nip in the air, but it looks as if today will be hot, the same as yesterday.
Well there isn’t much to write about at the moment, or at least not much that I can write about, although there is plenty happening, so I’ll say cheerio for now.
3204 were eventually disbanded on January 31st, 1944 and arrived back in Liverpool on 22nd February.
22 February 1944
Here’s a surprise for you. I’m back in England again, and hoping to be seeing you in the next few days, at any rate in a week, I hope. I’ve got no idea where we are going from here, or what’s happening in the near future, but I’ll post this as soon as I can, after we get ashore.
What should have been a happy time was spoilt by the fact that Syd learned that his mother had died on 19 February, while he was still at sea. After some leave he was posted to RAF Hawkinge, in Kent, the nearest aerodrome to France, on 12 March.