From Egypt to Trieste: Charlie ‘Speed’ Stanton’s three years chasing Germans
When World War II started, Charlie ‘Speed’ Stanton put his motor racing dreams to work chasing Germans across Europe.
Now 99 years old, Stanton was just 19 when war broke out in 1939, and he had a job working on the railways in Christchurch.
Growing up, Charlie and his younger brother Maurice had dreamed of being motor racers but the war forced them to change their plans.
“My father and two uncles had both been to World War I, and one of my uncles had been severely gassed there, which hampered his later life.
When the war started towards the end of 1939, I thought it was just the thing to do, really.
Starting out in the Territorial Army, Stanton was 21 when he was called up to serve in the 2nd New Zealand Division, which had been fighting the Nazi forces in North Africa.
Originally trained as a tank driver at Waiouru, by the time he arrived in Africa he had been transferred to work as a driver mechanic.
“Compared to others it was a relatively soft job – we got shelled and strafed now and again from enemy aircraft but all in all we really didn’t have many casualties.
“If I’d stayed in the Tank Brigade I would have been a driver, and I probably wouldn’t have survived.”
Along with 6000 other Kiwi soldiers ferried over on the RMS Aquitania, Stanton arrived in Egypt shortly after the battle of El Alamein, where New Zealand troops played a decisive role in stopping the advance of the German army under the command of Erwin Rommel.
“I missed the worst part of the war really, because as far as the New Zealand Division went, they had a tough time in Greece and a bad time in Crete, then Rommel chased the NZ Division all over the desert. The casualties were very high.
“But when I joined the division it was just after [El] Alamein – instead of the Germans chasing us, we were chasing the Germans.”
Working between Divisional Headquarters and various outposts, Stanton quickly gathered a reputation for rapidity amongst his comrades.
I was driving trucks a lot and everywhere I went I was always flat out, people used to kid me about that, they called me Speed Stanton.
When he wasn’t driving fast for the army, Stanton was going on adventures in his downtime – including climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza.
“I did it on my own, I don’t remember how it happened. There was a good view from the top – but I don’t think you’d be allowed to do that now.
Back on the campaign, conditions were challenging for soldiers as they pursued the Germans across the deserts of North Africa, where they dealt with shortages of water, sandstorms, and the occasional snake in their bedrolls.
When the Germans were defeated in Tunisia in May 1943, the focus shifted to flushing the German army out of Italy.
Stanton was an eyewitness to the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey in 1944, as Allied forces tried to push through the Gustav Line to liberate Rome.
“We were on a hill exactly opposite the monastery, with a big wide valley in the middle – probably about two or three miles away.
“It was incredible really, just how many bombers were in the sky just at the one time. Up above you could see the ripples going through the clouds like ripples on the sea, with all the explosions as the bombs landed on the monastery.”
Stanton said while the campaign was still going, there wasn’t really much time for reflection on what was happening.
“We had our jobs to do. Our jobs took us seven days a week, we just did what had to be done really.
The one thing we just kept thinking was why don’t the Germans surrender? That was the main thing. We chased them all the way from the bottom to the top of Italy; we considered all the time why they were still fighting us, because it was obvious they had no show.
At the end of the war, Stanton used his war gratuity pay from the army to fund his passion for car racing: purchasing a 1926 Bentley 3-Litre Speed Model to get him started in his career.
Along with his younger brother Maurice, he set a New Zealand land-speed record for the flying kilometre in the 1950s with their Tiger Moth-powered “Stanton Special”.
After assembling the motors Denny Hulme used to win the Formula One Championship in 1967, Stanton took up a more sedate hobby of flying gliders – which he did for 38 years.
“I suppose I could just about write three books: one on my war experience, one on my motor racing, and one on gliding.”
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