Memories of a Sunderland ‘Desert Rat’ who fought during the Second World War

DESERT RAT: Bob Matthews pictured when he was serving as a Desert Rat.
DESERT RAT: Bob Matthews pictured when he was serving as a Desert Rat.
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WEARSIDE gas fitter Robert Matthews was just days away from his 21st birthday when he signed up to fight for King and Country in the Second World War.

The next five years would bring battle wounds, near-fatal illnesses and the tragic loss of several friends in conflict.

ALL SMILES: Bob Matthews pictured during his time fighting Rommel's army in North Africa.

ALL SMILES: Bob Matthews pictured during his time fighting Rommel's army in North Africa.

“There are not many of us left now. It was such a long time ago,” he recalls.

Bob, son of miner William Matthews and his wife Isabella, was born in Ryhope Street, Ryhope, on December 8, 1919. The storm clouds of war were gathering as he left Ryhope Modern at 15.

“Dad wanted to be a miner, but granddad was against it,” said Bob’s daughter, Pam Ridgewell. “So granddad arranged for dad to visit the pit, and he hated it. Granddad was a wise man!

“Dad ended up as a fitter for British Gas instead. He was still an apprentice when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in December 1940, just a few days before he turned 21.”

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Bob (right) and a pal read all about home - thanks to a copy of the Sunderland Echo sent out to North Africa.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Bob (right) and a pal read all about home - thanks to a copy of the Sunderland Echo sent out to North Africa.

Bob spent the next year honing his fighting skills with the army in Hereford, London and Scotland, before being shipped to the Middle East aboard the troop ship Arawa in January 1942.

“On January 16, one of the ships in the convoy was hit by a torpedo and had to be escorted to Gibraltar. The rest continued down the west coast of Africa,” said Bob’s son-in-law David.

“Orders were then given to travel to Singapore but, 24 hours before they arrived, Singapore was captured by the Japanese. If Bob had arrived earlier, he would have ended up a prisoner.”

New instructions sent Bob’s convoy to Bombay instead. Eventually, after several weeks, the men were ordered to proceed to Iraq and protect the Suez Canal from the threat of invasion.“Bob was now in the new Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineering section of the army, and was part of General Montgomery’s British Eighth Army – known as the Desert Rats,” said David.

IN IT TOGETHER: Bob and pals in North Africa. Bob lost many friends in the fighting.

IN IT TOGETHER: Bob and pals in North Africa. Bob lost many friends in the fighting.

“It was his job to maintain the army vehicles. In the months ahead, the army travelled west through the Sahara desert. Many battles were fought to stop the progress of the German army.

“Conditions were extreme – with the men allocated very little water despite the hot conditions.

“What little they did get had to be used for washing and shaving, as well as drinking.

“The army suffered many setbacks, and had to retreat several times. But then Montgomery declared that there were to be no more retreats. The men had to stand their ground and fight.”

It was to be a difficult and bloody, task. The German army, led by ‘Desert Fox’ Erwin Rommel, was now poised on the brink of its final rout of the British army in North Africa.

“But they met unimagined resistance, spearheaded by the Desert Rats at the battle of El Alamein,” said David. “Bob was there and said he had never heard a noise so loud as the gunfire.

“It went on incessantly for days. Bob lost a lot of friends during this time, including one who was blown up in front of him, and he was also hit in the leg by shrapnel.”

Britain finally emerged victorious – prompting Winston Churchill to say: “Desert Rats, May your glory never fade. (Your) glorious pilgrimage is... unsurpassed in the history of war.”

Allied troops went on to drive the Germans out of Africa, but Bob stayed behind to maintain defences. The unsanitary conditions, heat and night-time chill took their toll on his health.

Two bouts of dysentery, as well as pneumonia and diphtheria, left him hospitalised several times. He refused, however, to give in to illness and remained in Africa until late 1945.

“The last part of Bob’s long journey home was a bus ride from Sunderland to Ryhope,” said David.

“One of the passengers, seeing how tired he was, carried his kit home for him.

“He still has the piece of shrapnel in his leg, but it has never really bothered him. He never complains about it and has never even walked with a limp.”

Bob returned to the Gas Board after being demobbed, working as a gas meter collector. He married his sweetheart Ella – the sister of one of his Ryhope pals – two years later, in 1947. The couple went on to have one daughter, Pam, and today 93-year-old Bob enjoys a rather more restful life at a nursing home in Sunderland – although his wartime memories remain vivid.

“War made dad a very strong man, but he didn’t really talk about his experiences for a long time, as he lost so many friends,” said Pam, who lives in East Herrington.

“In recent years, though, he has started telling us a great many stories, which David has been writing down. We want to preserve his memories for the future.”

•Bob sadly passed away two days after this interview. His funeral will be held on April 9, from 3pm, at St Paul’s Church at Ryhope. A service at Sunderland Crematorium will follow at 4pm. All friends and former colleagues welcome. Donations in lieu of flowers to the charity Help the Heroes.