In Search of Charlie- Woody's Story

 

In search of Charlie – Woody’s story

 

This is the story of my father, Woody Nel's  search for his brother, Charlie, with a bit of background about them as boys growing up in the small Karoo town of Oudtshoorn in the 1920's and 30's. The facts, as I write them down, may  differ a little from the report written by John Roos ("In search of Charlie") which appeared in the Sunday Times in 1985, as there is the odd thing in those reports which Woody says is not quite correct from his point of view, so I have changed them as they are his own words, and this is the story as I have come to know it, from speaking to him  since boyhood  about these events.

 

Their parents were Louis Leonard Nel, an attorney, who served many years on the town council including several stints as mayor of Oudtshoorn, and Catherine (Kitty) Elizabeth Schoeman. They were married in 1898 and their first child, Ruby, was born in 1900. They went on to have 10 children, of whom Charlie was ninth and Woody (Woodford) was youngest. There was quite a large gap between Bernie, the eighth child, born 1916, and Charles Paul, born 25/04/1923. Woody was born 10/11/1925. As they were by far the two youngest, and just over 2 years apart, they were inseparable from infancy, and got up to enormous mischief, growing up on a smallholding on the outskirts of town, with an old bachelor uncle, also Charles Paul, living with them. Old uncle Charlie owned the local General Motors dealership, C.P.Nel and Company, had a firearms shop,  a bicycle shop, and opened museums in Oudtshoorn and Beaufort West. As a result, a constant stream of samples, demonstrators, fire-arms, various antiques and such-like "big boys' toys" was constantly passing through the family home. Old uncle Charlie was an International Shottist, Colonel of the Oudtshoorn Volunteer Rifles (would be the equivalent of the "Territorials" in the UK), holder of an MBE, and a keen hunter, while Louis and his eldest son, Garnet, a local General Practitioner, were keen anglers and hunters too. The two youngsters took to all the "manly" pursuits with a passion, and were keen athletes and rugby and tennis players. Woody set some swimming records at Oudtshoorn Boys' High School which stood for almost 20 years. Charlie was an accomplished pianist and a great "Lady's Man" with his charm, good looks and great sense of fun.

 

Charlie matriculated at the of 1940 from the Oudtshoorn Boys' High School,  and immediately joined the SAAF  to train as a pilot at No. 5 Flying School, Witbank, and No. 27 Air School, Bloemfontein. He had been planning to follow in the footsteps of his 3 older brothers and train as a medical doctor, but Hitler intervened. While doing his training he represented the SAAF in the SADF athletic championships at Robert's Heights (now Voortrekkerhoogte) and won the 100 yards sprint in 10.0 seconds. He also continued playing league tennis. He duly qualified as a pilot, and received his wings on 14/08/42. He was trained as an instructor at 62 Air School, and was posted to No. 7 Air School in Kroonstad as a Second Lieutenant in November 1942. He was apparently popular with his students and his superiors, but "blotted his copy-book", as a result of a "dare", by flying underneath the railway bridge over the Vals River in Kroonstad - this was expressly forbidden by the SAAF as being far too dangerous - for which he was grounded for 2 weeks. He was promoted full Lieutenant in March 1943. He regularly applied to be posted to an operational squadron "Up North", but was just as regularly turned down, as he was considered to be a good instructor whom the school did not want to lose. Eventually his persistence was rewarded with a posting to 31 Squadron in March 1944, who were then preparing at Lydda in Palestine to convert to Liberators from the 2-engined Bostons they had previously been using. Initially he was the co-pilot to Lt.Col Dirk Uys Nel, the OC of 31 Squadron. They were then transferred to Foggia in Southern Italy, where he shared a tent with Santie Meterlerkamp, pilot of KG 874, and his navigator, Coen Vorster, who died with him.

 

He eventually was given his own command in September 1944.During his time wth 31 Squadron, he flew missions over Italy, the Balkans, and the famous Warsaw raids. His last mission, his 23rd, was the supply drop to partisans in Northern Italy, 12 October 1944. He and 5 other planes failed to return from that mission, which is where the story of Woody's search starts.

 

Woody had matriculated in 1943 and immediately after finishing the final exams he left for Pretoria and sought to join the SAAF and be admitted to pilot-training, loke his brother. In Pretoria,  they were given aptitude tests and such-like, and the whole intake, with the exception of one candidate, who strangely enough had a relative who was a senior officer in the SAAF, were told they were not suited to being trained as pilots, but that they were all marvellous candidates for air-gunners. Woody thought this sounded fishy, and for him it was to be a pilot or nothing, so he left and travelled to Cape Town where he joined 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, at Ottery. After completing training, he was posted to Egypt, where they were stationed at various anti-aircraft sites on Bofors guns. While en route to Egypt, they were waiting in Pretoria for a few days for a plane north. One night, out on a pass, he was hitch-hiking back to camp. A large dark car stopped and he could see a senior officer in the back. He thought he was now in serious trouble for hitch-hiking or some similar Army rule he might have inadvertently broken! Instead the officer offered him a lift. To his shock, it turned out to be General Smuts, then Prime Minister of South Africa, Commander-in-Chief of all South African forces, member of the British War Cabinet and confidante of the British Royal Family and Winston Churchill. Woody and General Smuts got talking, and Woody reminded the general that Smuts had actually stayed in their house in Oudtshoorn in the mid-30's, while on a political visit to the area, where Louis was a prominent United Party supporter. The general dropped him off at the camp and a day or 2 later Woody and his regiment left for Egypt. The relevance of this anecdote will emerge later in the story.

 

In 1944 the Allies in Italy had such total air dominance, that most of the anti-aircraft regiments were disbanded and the men transferred to other branches of the SADF. Woody's regiment was transferred to the Cape Town Higlanders initially and then  into the amalgamated Wits Rifles/ Regiment De la Rey. He was trained as a Vickers machine-gunner, in which capacity he served with the 6th SA Armoured Division in the Italian campaign, until he went down with "Trench Foot" in the bitter winter of 1944. After recovering from this, he was made a driver.

 

Woody received a letter from his parents in November 1944, to say that Charlie had been missing in action on a mission over northern Italy. The inevitable second letter was then received by Louis and Kitty in April 1945, to confirm that 6 months had passed since the airmen had gone missing, and as there was still no substantive news to the contrary, they were now listed as "presumed killed in action". This news was duly passed on to Woody by their heartbroken parents. By now the war in Italy was drawing to a close, and  Woody's regiment was posted to various places around Italy before they eventually ended up guarding ships in the harbour of Port Said in Egypt. Here he finally got round to doing something definitive about his missing brother. He pestered the army hierarchy with queries and requests for information, but, as one would expect, he was continually stalled by disinterested beurocrats - who cared about a missing airman after the war was over? Well, Woody cared, so in desperation he sent a letter directly to General Smuts, outlining the problem, and mentioning the hitch-hiking episode as well as the stay at the Nel home in Oudtshoorn. About 2 weeks later, in October 1945,  he was urgently summoned to see the major! They had received instructions from General Smuts's office to immediately make arrangements to return Woody to Italy, provide him with transport, money, cigarettes for barter, information and all necessary help. He scarcely had time to pack when he was taken to the Kilo 40 airport and flown to Foggia in a 31 Squadron Liberator, "P" - ironically the plane that had replaced Charlie's downed one! Woody cannot recall the pilot's name, unfortunately. From Foggia he was driven to Rome, where he arrived after dark. He was taken to a large ex-Italian Army barracks on the outskirts, where he met an administrative service soldier that he had known as a pupil teacher from Oudtshoorn days, a Corporal Klopper. This clerk had in his hands the orders to supply Woody with all the necessary papers, transport, a driver and currrency.

 

The next day Woody and his driver, Wally Starke, left for the north, where there had been reports of planes crashing into the mountains on the night of 12/10/1944 - I presume the report filed by Herbert Wood would be one of them, as well as the other reports from the Italian partisans and civilians about large 4-engined planes crashing into the Alps on the night of 12 October 1944. In Milan they were briefed by the local partisan command, and the local British Command. They were then able to trace the route to Ceres and Ala di Stura. They travelled up to Ala from Milan and met with the local partisans who had been involved in the recovery of the bodies around 16 -23 October 1944. They were taken up to the Crash site by 2 partisans the next day, one of whom we have subsequently identified as Cacet Maranero. There they obviously found a large amount of wreckage. After the snow had thawed  in the Spring of 1945, shepherds had apparently found more remains, which had not been found by the original search party on 23 October 1944. These they had placed under a large rock, in front of which they had placed a cross made of some wreckage. Woody exhumed these remains, and is absolutely certain that Charlie's scalp and one hand were amongst the remains. These remains were then taken down to Ala, placed in rough wooden coffins and buried in Ceres with the remains which had previously  been recovered by the partisans on 23 October 1944. Woody has always expressed his gratitude to General Smuts for what he did to make the journey and search possible, and also for the assistance and kindness he experienced at the hands of the Italian partisans and civilian population. 

 

Subsequently, the remains of all Commonwealth troops killed in Italy were re-interred in the Commonwealth  War Cemetery, in Trenno, on the outskirts of Milan between 1947 and 1948.

 

Sadly, Woody had confirmed his beloved brother's death, which fact he communicated to the family and of course the relevant SADF authorities. He then was returned to his unit in Egypt and was later repatriated to South Africa and demobilised.

 

Here ends the story of one brother's search for another. Sadly, Woody  had several strokes before his death in 2008, which adversely affected his memory, so it was very difficult for him to recall some of the smaller details of the story, which took place almost 60 years ago. Equally sadly, the story was not committed to paper earlier, when more of the people involved were still with us! What has been written down here is as close a version of what actually happened as it is possible to obtain.

 

Charles Paul Nel (son of Woody, nephew of Charlie)

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