Reginald Southwell

  • Royal Tank Regiment
DOB January 8, 1920
Surviving Today Yes

Reginald (always known as Reg) was born in Tooting London SW17 on January 8 1920. He and his younger brother Alec had parents who, although not well off, valued education and consequently the family moved to Middlesex to ensure that they had access to better schools. As a result both he and his brother were able to attend the local Grammar School; at this time these schools were generally fee paying, but scholarships were available for clever pupils such as Reg and Alec who could not afford the fees. When Reg was 16 (the school leaving age at that time was 14) he took a matriculation examination (a school-leaving examination which was a preliminary requirement for admission to some universities) and achieved distinctions in Chemistry and Maths.

His natural abilities at school had meant that Reg had wanted to follow a career in science and he was offered a job as a laboratory assistant at Battersea University, which would have involved him studying part time for a degree. However, before he received this job offer, he was recommended by a family member to work for an estate agent and having accepted the position felt committed to doing a job that wasn’t his preferred choice. Consequently at 16 he went to work for an estate agent and decided to continue his studies for a further 4 years attending evening classes and working at home for his Chartered Auctioneers and Estate Agents Exam, which he took and passed after 3 and a half years. Immediately following his qualification he received his call up papers in December 1940 and (holding a driving licence) was trained as a Tank Driver in the Royal Tank Regiment.

Whilst in a holding unit in the UK in 1941 there was an advertisement for men to volunteer to train as Fitters and Electricians and since Reg had extensive experience of self-study and taking exams he put his name forward – despite not having any previous experience, apart from helping his father in his workshop at home. This experience he ‘enhanced’ which allowed him to be selected and he was sent on a 6 months civilian course in fitting and then electrics, which he passed with 80 – 90% in the written exam but because he’d challenged the instructing sergeant about electrical inertia (not the wisest thing to do with a senior officer) he was only awarded 30% on his coursework. It didn’t matter – he’d passed and was now a qualified Fitter Electrician.

Still based in the UK Reg was put forward by his Commanding Officer (on the strength of his debating skills) for officer training at Sandhurst. Reg felt that the Tank Regiment was looked down upon by the Cavalry Regiments that mostly comprised trainee officers and he soon returned to his Regiment. However, the few weeks he was a Sandhurst allowed him to meet his brother Alec for one last time. Alec had signed up as a reserve in the Royal Navy before the outbreak of war and had spent time touring South America in a corvette (a small warship which is traditionally the smallest class of vessel considered to be a proper warship). At the outbreak of War early in September 1939 Alec was re-called to the UK to serve on a Battleship.  He was allowed leave to return home in 1941 at the same time as Reg was travelling home for the weekend from Sandhurst. Alec had been impatient to get home and had ‘jumped’ the train at a station near his home rather than travelling to Portsmouth to be properly discharged to take his leave. Reg told him off (as older brothers will) and sent him hastily to Portsmouth – but sadly too late to avoid being Absent WithOut Leave (AWOL) for which he was punished by having his leave delayed for two weeks. Reg and Alec never met again since Alec’s ship was bombed in the Mediterranean and Alec is buried (where his body was retrieved) in Africa.

Reg saw action in the North Africa campaign (a series of battles for control of North Africa) with his unit being one of the first to go into action with Mark III Churchill tanks. At stake was control of the Suez Canal, a vital lifeline for Britain’s colonial empire, and of the valuable oil reserves of the Middle East.

It was Tunisia where Reg saw action from November 1942 to May 1943. Less than a week after the fall of Tunis on 13th May 1943, Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered, and more than 250,000 prisoners were taken. This was a decisive Allied victory allowing North Africa to subsequently serve as a base for future Allied operations against Italy itself. Following the defeat of the German general, Rommel, in Africa and following the successful invasion of Sicily, the Allied invasion of Italy took place. The Allied amphibious landing on mainland Italy took place on 3 September 1943 during the early stages of the Italian Campaign of World War II. It was from here that Allied troops took part in the Italian Campaign and the ‘Long hard slog’ in Italy which saw some of the most bitter, costly fighting of the war, much of it in treacherous mountain terrain. The objectives of this invasion were to remove Italy from World War II, secure the Mediterranean Sea and force Germany to divert some divisions from the Russian front and other German divisions from northern France, where the Allies were planning their cross-Channel landing at Normandy, France.

German forces in Italy finally surrendered on May 2, 1945, two days after the collapse of Berlin and at this point Reg was sent to India (where there was need for a qualified Fitter / Electrician) to the take part in the war in the Far East, since Japan was still fighting Allied troops. The Japanese surrender marked the formal end of World War II on September 2 1945 and Reg was diverted from the Far East to Indonesia where he served with an armoured cars squadron trying to establish law and order in a country that “did not want us”. The squadron was responsible for maintaining safety for Dutch civilians; the local people (who had been under the ‘rod of iron’ rule of Japan) did not want either Dutch or British control after they were freed from the Japanese invasion and regularly attacked the squadron whilst they were on patrol. In a strange truce negotiated by the British the Japanese agreed to help with maintaining law and order and consequently were issued with one rifle and one round of ammunition for each soldier. Reg recalls that the Japanese soldiers cruised around safely and were not fired at by the locals – the punishments meted out during their occupation (of 20 civilians killed for every Japanese life lost) still remained in the collective memory.

Reg was discharged from the army on 14 September 1946. Because he had completed his Chartered Auctioneers and Estate Agents qualification before he entered the army, he was immediately employed by London County Council, where his role was that of dealing with slum sites. Within six months he moved to work for a Chartered Surveyor in Middlesex who supported Reg (who again worked through self-study) to gain his Chartered Surveyor qualification.

From Middlesex, Reg took a contract with the Colonial Service where he worked in Africa for ten years in Sierra Leone; a colourful period of his life that merits another chapter in Reg’s life story.

Seventy-five years after his war service, Reg generously gave his time to be interviewed in February 2020, aged 100 years old.