The Wartime Exploits of Leslie Stelfox
Les was born in Dover Street, Sittingbourne on the 9th May 1913, just a year prior to the outbreak of world war one. His earliest memory was of being pushed in his pram and seeing a Zeppelin fly overhead on the way to bomb London.
Les’s father, in 1918 was a Chief petty Officer in the Royal Navy, after being posted to China for three years and then Shotley, his father was posted to North Shields on the Tyne for five years as a ship minder aboard the old battleship HMS Satellite. It was here that Les learnt to shoot as a very young boy in the indoor range. It was aboard the Satellite that Les’s sister was born.
The family then moved to Cheshire in the 1920’s during the depression and at the age of seventeen, Les joined the Cheshire’s Territorial Army unit and at the age of eighteen, his father gave him half a crown and sent him off to Warrington to join the Navy. Unfortunately, there was no Naval recruitment office in Warrington, so Les walked into the Army recruitment office and joined the Cheshire Regiment instead.
After six months in Chester, Les was posted to Malta for two years where he was immediately in trouble for having the wrong shade of Blanco !!
From nineteen thirty three to nineteen thirty nine, Les was in India at Ambala, Simla and Bombay. He had signed on for seven years with the colours and five in reserve.
In his final year, Les was promoted to Lance Corporal. With no work to be found when he returned to the UK in nineteen thirty eight, Les signed up for the Palestine Police Force, where he served in their Marine section until nineteen forty two when he re-joined the Cheshire Regiment. During his time in the Police force, his pass gave him access to many of the biblical lands and cities including Jerusalem and Haifa. Whilst in the Palestine Police force, Les joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Les (not surprisingly) says that the years nineteen thirty eight to nineteen forty five were the most eventful time of his life.
In nineteen forty two, Les boarded the MV Georgic for passage back to the UK at Port Suez, only for the ship to be bombed at anchor and run aground to save the vessel from sinking. Les narrowly escaped with just what he stood up in, having returned first to his cabin to collect his passport and with flames pouring from the portholes; escaped by climbing down the anchor chain to waiting boats.
With assistance from the American Red Cross, Les survived to embark on the Langiby Castle and after a four month voyage, arrived back in Southampton in November nineteen forty one.
Les had written to both the Royal Navy and the Cheshire Regiment and ended up re-joining the Cheshire’s in January nineteen forty two. It was at this time that Les married Caroline; the youngest of twenty one children and they remained happily married for fifty years.
Les joined the 6th Battalion at Caterham and was quickly sent out to Egypt and within two days, was promoted to Corporal. After desert training with the Desert Rats of the 8th Army, they were fully occupied with the build up for the Battle of Alamein. This period was notable for there being no water for washing nor a change of clothes for ten weeks. About this time, Les was in the Quattara depression on the extreme South flank of the allied front that Les suffered burns from an improvised petrol stove when someone left some cordite in it. He was sent off in the direction of the first aid post and four hours later, stumbled on some Redcaps who covered the damaged area with Vaseline and sent him on his way again. Les eventually met up with the 51st Highland Division, where he was treated by a doctor dressed in immaculate whites when he passed out, only to wake up on a train on the way to the rear area hospital. Les was then sent to Tripoli for invasion training, it was here whilst on the way to a Vera Lynne concert that they came upon a deserted, unguarded shower block. Les and his mates used the showers, rather than attend the concert. It was also in this period that the battalion were swimming in the sea when undercurrents started to take swimmers away. Although Les was the furthest from shore, he was a strong swimmer and saved himself and another soldier, only to have to bury the same soldier six months later.
After Tripoli and the end of the war in North Africa, Les was amongst the first waves ashore at Salerno, as usual on the wrong beach with the airfield nowhere in sight, landing from an LST with a platoon of the Queens, nearly all of whom were either killed or captured. Les escaped by hiding in a stream. It was at Salerno that several members of the Vickers machine gun team were killed and injured by a stick grenade. Les carried on although injured and put down covering fire and took several prisoners, who he then used to take one of his wounded colleagues back down to the beach for urgent treatment. This saved the soldiers life and his son Peter Kearnes is with us today.
Les also survived being bombed by the Americans and also saw action at Naples, where he was injured again and was hospitalised for two weeks which meant that he missed being sent to Anzio.
This was during the time when the Italians swapped allegiances and threw their lot in with the allies, which resulted in some gruesome sights where the retreating German forces hung Italian men and women along the roadside. Scenes Les says he will never forget.
After being patched up, Les was then sent to Kircut in Iraq, but not for long because he was then sent to Cassino where he took part in the crossing of the River Rapido in December nineteen forty three. Here, he was injured again, having been told to wade up the freezing Mill stream, Les and his mate on the Vickers thought it was much more sensible to follow the path and cross by the footbridge, but of course this access had been mined with the “S” type anti-personnel mines. Although he was blown a long way along the path, he suffered only minor injuries and was then eligible to apply for a draft home.
Les returned to England and arrived back in Sittingbourne on the 6th June 1944 where he appeared to be almost the only soldier to be seen as they had all been spirited away to Normandy. Les was still suffering from tinnitus from the result of his injuries and so was transferred to the RASC and sent to the Isle of White and eventually returned home to Caroline in December 1945, when they moved to Cheshire to help out at his mother’s public house. This arrangement did not last very long.
Caroline wanted to return to Sittingbourne which they did, and Les got a job as a stevedore at Ridham docks and soon afterwards his son Anthony came on the scene and Les carried on at Ridham until nineteen seventy three, when he was made redundant at age sixty. Les remained in the TA reserves until nineteen sixty six, a total of thirty five years in uniform.
Les soon moved to Kemsley Mill for three years and then did gardening jobs for a year until he retired at the age of sixty five in nineteen seventy eight.
After Les’s wife died, he joined The Royal British Legion and has served for the past twenty years.