Book devoted to war rats

AT the age of 89, Felix Sanders was making his way home.He had been sitting on a bench in the sunshine of Bury St Edmunds's Abbey Gardens, talking to two friends from his church about the life story he had been writing.

By Tracey Sparling

THIS is an endearing story of love and pride, yet it begins with tragedy. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING tells the heartwarming story of daughters' devotion, which proves the value of family bonds this Christmas.

AT the age of 89, Felix Sanders was making his way home.

He had been sitting on a bench in the sunshine of Bury St Edmunds's Abbey Gardens, talking to two friends from his church about the life story he had been writing.

As the elderly gentleman went to cross the road just yards from his home, one car slowed to let him proceed but another driver failed to spot him - believed to have been blinded by the low autumn sun. Felix was knocked down, and lost consciousness in hospital never to wake up again.

He died that day three years ago, but through his own words and the dedication of his daughters, his story will now live on.

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His daughters Mary Ann White, and Joni Holland who now lives in Australia, were left with the task of having his memoirs published. The story which took him 16 years to write, has been turned in to a short book, which many readers will come to treasure as a reminder of how ordinary Suffolk men rose to become heroes in wartime.

Felix was named after the ward in Ipswich Hospital where he was born, and his father Frederick Sanders was a master baker who ran Victoria Road Bakery in Ipswich. The family later moved to Chelmsford and when he was 22 years old Felix was called up, just two days before war broke out in 1939.

He found himself in the Royal Horse Artillery, and his story recalls the next eight years which included five years under fire, with the action taking place in eight countries mainly in the East and North Africa.

Mary Ann, 58, from Pickwick Crescent in Bury St Edmunds, said: “To see his story published was something he always wanted to happen, so that's what my sister and I decided to do.

“If he could see the book now he would be delighted. I can just picture him sitting there, with tears of joy in his eyes.”

Felix started writing his memoirs in 1986 when a local paper asked people to send in their stories, with a chance of getting published in the paper. He had enjoyed writing since he was a child, and that invitation spurred him on to write the first four chapters.

After 1990 his beloved wife Mary suffered from Parkinson's Disease which brought on senile dementia. He looked after her at home for as long as possible, then when she had to go in to a home he visited her for hours every day until she died in 1999.

Mary Ann said: “Her loss left a great hole in his life - after 52 years of marriage. It was after that that we persuaded Daddy to finish his memoirs. We thought it would give him something to focus on.

“The last two chapters ended with our parents getting married and Daddy said his favourite picture of all was their wedding photograph. They never quarrelled or had a cross word to say about each other.”

Mary Ann, a hospital teacher at West Suffolk Hospital, then had the dilemma of how to get the story published. It was too short for a novel, and too long for a newspaper article.

In June 2005 she was in a Christian bookshop, called Bury Bookshop, and by chance she saw a card from Bury-based Arima Publishing, asking people for their local stories - it was almost as if divine intervention had led her there!

“I took the last card,” she laughed, and added: “and took them the spiral-bound draft typed by my aunt, which they said they'd be delighted to publish. My daughter Anna and I went to Australia to see Joni and draw the story together. Joni was able to get photographs from the Rats of Tobruk Association, which is based in her hometown of Melbourne - as 14,000 rats were Australian and 10,000 were Poms. My friend typed an electronic copy for the publishers.”

Felix had written about life as a driver, in the Royal Horse Artillery Regiment which was part of the Army of the Nile, and the Eight, Ninth and Tenth Armies.

He was one of the besieged Rats of Tobruk, fought the Italians in the deserts of Libya and Egypt, and was part of the Intelligence Section at the Battle of El Alamein.

His words describe the daily life of the troops in desert conditions, their clothing, food, accommodation and leisure. He relates the fear and horrific reality of being under fire from ground and air, and how they survived amid sandstorm, scorpions and flies.

The result is a book called 'Dusty Amateurs, of such were the Rats of Tobruk' which is winning acclaim from readers.

Graham Edwards MP, Parliamentary secretary to the shadow minister for defence and veterans' affairs for the Commonwealth of Australia said: “This is a compelling story of a decent man who lived and fought in tough and hard times. It is the story of a man who had every reason to become as hard as the times in which he lived, but who chose to rise above them.

“This is an important story told by an 'amateur' in war, but a true and professional gentleman in life. Felix's story is indeed an inspiration. It is indeed a wonderful legacy.”

Arima Publishing in Bury St Edmunds runs a 'new author programme' to encourage local writers to share their stories.

Spokesman Richard Franklin said: “It is always nice to work on local projects and we are always pleased to discuss ideas with authors.”

The programme offers professional typesetting, full-colour cover design, ISBN number, distribution (via amazon etc) and ten complimentary paperback author copies. The cost is £575 and author royalties are 20pc of the cover price of the title.

Richard added: “Having said this, we do consider projects on their individual merits and decide on the publishing model once we have reviewed the book.”

Weblink: www.arimapublishing.co.uk

“The men scattered to their protective rock walls. Having no cover myself I dived under my now empty truck. Seconds later they hit us. All hell broke loose.

“The whining and roar of exploding bombs, the fires, the flames and explosions as trucks, guns and ammunition went up.

“The screams of the wounded. The convulsing ground, the descending darkness as dust and smoke blotted out the brilliant December sunshine.

“A moment of quiet then came the second wave. Pandemonium instantly resumed.

“I felt something hit me in the back. 'Hah' I thought, 'This is my lot' Sudden silence. Realising to my surprise that I was not dead. I crawled out from under my lifesaving truck to view a scene of carnage. The crew seated in the firing seats, looking lifelike and alert, were all dead to a man before they could even get one round off, killed by the blast. The dead and wounded lay all around. I well remember one poor man, whom I knew well. His arms and legs had been torn off, and with other injuries he begged to be finished off.

“My truck was a mess, but it had saved my life. The buck and cab had largely disappeared. Fortunately most of the floor remained. Three wheels were beyond help. The fourth wheel merely sustained a punctured tyre. Every bit of my kit, actions and water had been blown away.

“My leather jerkin and greatcoat were in shreds, and even my thick tunic and shirt were peppered with holes. I had some wound on my back which I had no time to check on, but I had been spared, I was alive.”

After Felix had dealt with the injured he cannibalised the wrecked vehicles to fit three wheels from other vehicles, leaving his original with a flat tyre. The brakes were useless, and the prop shaft was partly severed but he had to drive the truck down an escarpment:

“I could not hope to keep up with the other trucks, which were soon out of sight. In splendid isolation I pushed on and reached the top of the Halyfa Pass without incident. That was the easy bit. Now somehow I had to get to the bottom of the escarpment without brakes, with a flat tyre. With a heartfelt prayer I slipped the gear in to bottom and just went. Thinking back, 49 years later, I still do not understand how I ever got down in one piece.

“The truck picked up speed and fairly raced down the steep gradient. It roared round those awful hairpin bends with the sheep drop on one side. Somehow I had the strength and skill to wrestle the steering wheel and hold it on the road despite the enormous pull. I was down safe.”

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'Dusty Amateurs…of such were the Rats of Tobruk' is available from Amazon and The Bury Bookshop for £8.49.

The British 7th Armoured Division is one of the most famous formations that ever served in the British Army.

It was formed in the desert of North Africa just before the Second World War and fought in most of the major campaigns of the war, ending up in Berlin.

After the 'Munich Crisis' in 1938, the British decided to strengthen their forces in Egypt to protect the vital link of the Suez Canal. In 1938 a 'Mobile Force' was established west of Alexandria. This force was supported by 3rd Royal Horse Artillery.

It later became the 7th Armoured Division and the men adopted the nick-name of "The Desert Rats".

In January 1941, they took part in the successful capture of Tobruk and Bardia and culminating with the action at Beda Fomm , in February 1941. This campaign effectively destroyed the Italian Army in North Africa.

In the British offensive of El Alamein in October 1942, its main role was to participate in the armoured breakout, called 'Operation Supercharge'. The 7th Armoured Division and other British formations pursued the retreating Germans and Italians, taking Tripoli on the way. By May the war in North Africa was over.

The 7th Armoured Division returned to England in November 1943.

There is a monument to the 7th Armoured at Brandon in Thetford Forest where the 7th trained prior to D-day.

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