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15 October 2014
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My husbands experiences of war pt3 'Escape by sea'

by nottinghamcsv

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Olive Cooper Mr Charles Edwin Cooper
Location of story: 
Nottingham and Abroad
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 August 2005

Fed up at Hafia 1943

This story was submitted to the People's War site by CSV/BBC Radio Nottingham on behalf of Mrs Olive Cooper with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The next day the llth Fd. Bakery came in and took over our bakery. We left about 6.00 p.m in lorries, and went towards Bardia and then cut across the desert to get round the other side of The harbour as it was sheltered by the hills and could not be shelled. We sat on the beach and were given some Navy Rum by the sailors who were going to get us on the ships. About 1.00 a.m. we saw a Destroyer come in and stop in mid stream. As there were no landings on this side of the harbour as soon as she stopped the sailors rowed a pontoon bridge out and we had to get to the ship the best way we could. Some fell into the water and swam. Tom and I threw our kit bags into the sea, ran across the pontoon and jumped on to like a scramble net that had been put over the side. Later twenty minutes the ship left and those who could not get on - well, it was bad luck. The reason why the ship could not stay in the harbour was that Jerry had a very large gun on railway tracks, just outside Bardia, and this could throw a two ton shell over and it took 22 minutes to reload so a ship had only 20 minutes to move out. Anyway we got on board and were told to go down below. When Tom, who was in front of me, looked down into the hold he turned to me and said "I am not going down there, if we get torpedoed we could drown. So me, along with some more of the lads stopped on deck. By this time the destroyer was well under way. She was zig zagging and sometimes nearly rolled over, so we had to brace ourselves. Down came the divebombers and machine guns going. The "Pom Pom" guns and heavy guns on the ship came into action and we had to get undercover and out of the way of the empty shells which were rolling all over the deck because they were hot. Out we sailed, straight into the Med, as we could not go down the coast, because of the Jerries coastal guns. By daybreak the planes had given up and the crew made `real' tea for us and meat sandwiches. We were able to lie in the sun and let our clothes dry.
All I had were boots, one size 10 and one size 8, socks, shorts and a shirt of a sort. As I said before, I got rid of my kit bag getting on the ship. Later, we docked at Alexandria - and, thanks to the Royal Australian Navy destroyer - Sydney - we had got what could only be called "Hell".
We were taken to a transit camp, just outside Alex, called `Mustafa' In this camp there were a lot of men from the Aussie 9th Army. As we were attached to them we had their badge, which was a kangaroo. In this camp there were men who had just come out from `Blighty' and they were all spit and polished up so you can guess what we looked like when we arrived in camp.
We were told to draw blankets and then get showered (the first one for over 9 months!) and then go to the stores and get all new kit, clothes etc. I remember a few of were going towards the showers and a young lieutenant called us to him and started to give us a dressing down for being untidy; dirty boots and no caps. As it happened a 'Digger' captain heard him and came to our aid. He asked him how long he had been out and then told him how we had kept them with supplies of bread in the desert and the conditions which we had over the last 9 months and then he told the lieutenant to get lost and to leave us alone. He then took us in to the officer's tent and gave us beer. After a hair cut, shower, new clothes and a good meal we were taken to some peace-time barracks. Given two weeks pay and two weeks leave in Alexandria. Being full of 'Aussies' we were treated like lords for the work we had done for the 9th Australian Army.
The 2 weeks in Alex, with its bars, and food halls, were soon over. We then got a troop train into Palestine. This took two days and we had stops on the way for meals. It was a change to see green field, olive trees and orange groves after all those months of nothing but sand and rocks the end of the train took us to Haifa. A two mile ride by lorry took us to Iran. The camp had been a Jewish settlement land was surrounded by field of melons and sweet corn. We found when we arrived that all the gear for a field bakery had been delivered but, instead of Aldershot Ovens, there were four Polly Ovens. These were coke fired and had two shelves. Tents were put up to make the dough room and bread store. The ovens had to be lifted by crane on to a stack of old railway sleepers and then we built a roof over them with corrugated iron sheets. There was a kitchen with dining hall and a room with 17o C.
The living rooms were long sheds with rooms to sleep four men. There was also a room which used to be a stock room and this we used for men who were on night work, as it was away from the rest of the camp. As I have said there were 130 men in la field bakery. These were not all bakers as some were what we called `issuares' and these men carried the bread, fetched water and did all the odd jobs. Then there were the cooks, drivers, office staff and storemen. Whilst we were in Palestine we had four bakers, a sergeant and four men went to Tel-Aviv and, with some local labour, set up a bakery there right on the see front. He was there until his overseas' time was up - about two years. There was also a small peace-time bakery on the docks in Haifa. This had four Polly ovens and all handmade dough and the men were taken by lorry every day from our camp. Then we took over a very modern bakery, near the camp. The ovens were heated by oil. The mixing and divin and moulding machines were all electric. It had a dining room and showers. The ovens were all hand fed by using a wooden peel and it was here that I spent most of my time. We took turns in working nights. A few men went on at 10.00 p.m. to make the dough and the others went on at 6.00 a.m. then they finished about 12 noon - this depended on how much we had to bake. The bakery was called `Pat's Bakery' and we could walk to it across the fields in about a quarter of an hour. When we were on nights we used to pack a few water melons, or sweet corn. There was a factory next door which made `pop' so we used to do a swap with them - bread for `pop'. When I was on days I was always on the ovens as I was rather good with a 'Peel'. I had a young `wog' Egyptian to put the trays of 6 doughs in to my `Peel'.
Now, it was whilst I was sitting outside `Pat's', having a cup of tea that a ration lorry came in for their bread ration and, who should be with them, Cedric Ralins, who had a Butcher's shop in Stapleford. So, most days, we swapped bread for steak, as he was the Company Butcher! We spent a lot of time together. As I said, we were not far from Haifa and we had a lorry to take us swimming most days.
One day, when the mail came, I had a letter from a girl who lived in Stapleford and she had got my address from a lady whom I knew and she lived in the same street. Now, I have forgotten to tell you before that the girl whom I was courting before the war had written to me to say that she had got married and the lady has asked this girl to write to me to `cheer me up'. The girl's name was Olive Irene Fearn, but she told me to call her `Peggy'. - I wrote to `Peggy' and she wrote to me and so our friendship started.
We had a lot of Italian P.O.Ws working for us at the Bakery and so we were to have plenty of time off. Haifa is a large town and there were plenty of cafes etc. Food was plentiful and very cheap. There was plenty of fruit and oranges and these were very cheap! I was in a club one day, run by some Woman's Club and I and Tom were asked if we would like to go out for tea. We were given an address to go up to Mount Carmel to a house. When we got there it was a very `posh' house and the people did us a good meal. The next time we went we took some bread as there was only a kind of brown loaf and to get a white loaf was a treat.
We heard that the 12th Bakery was in Syria, with a Bakery in Beirut and one in Damascus. So, when I got two week's leave, we hitched a lift into Syria and went to Beirut and stayed at the Baleru for a few days and then on to Damascus for a few days. Then we heard of an Army Camp up in the mountains in Lebanon and so we called there. We tried to get into Turkey to see what that was like but, we were refused, as Turkey was not at war. The next time I had leave I decided to go to Jerusalem. So, we first went to Tel Aviv to our Bakery there to see Charlie Hawkins who was running the Bakery. He could not put us up for the night so we booked into an hotel, but went to the Bakery for a few meals as they had good and plenty of food, as Charlie had a good `racket' going. After a few days in Tel Aviv we moved on to Jaffa. This was only a very small village and so, on to Jerusalem. We visited all the places that one reads of in the `good book'. The different churches, the Wailing Wall etc. We also visited Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. As this Sea is below sea-level it contains a lot of salt so it is very buoyant and hard to swim in. We visited The Sea of Galilee, River Jordan, and many other places of interest until our two weeks were up. All these trips we did by thumbing lifts on W.D. wagons and lorries.
So, back to camp and work. Now, it was about this time that I had my one, and only, accident in my army days. As I have said in my book before, I spent most of my time in `Pat's Bakery', whilst I was in Palestine, but, as the ovens in the camp were coke fired we all had to take our turn to be stoker of these ovens for a week. I will try and explain how these ovens are heated. There are two shelves in the `Polly' ovens and, at the top of each shelf, there are sealed tubes which run from the front of the oven to the back into the fire box. As you can imagine it was a very hot job and I had only a pair of shorts on and a sweat rag round by neck. I had just started to fill the fire boxes up when, the one I was standing behind exploded and blew me across the road. I was knocked out and had the full blast of hot cake an my chest. I was taken to the Army Hospital in Haifa to be treated for burns. I was in hospital for a while and, one day, an Army Doctor came to see me and he had a U.S.A. officer with him. He said `I see you are from a Bakery' This officer could use your help. If I send you on convalescence would you help him out at the hospital he is at. So I said yes I would and off we went to a small hospital which was at Nazareth. It was mostly for missionaries and U.S.A people who were working for large companies in Palestine, as America were not in the war at that time. There were some American Sisters of Mary, but there was also some native help. I was given some new clothes etc. and a nice little hut was given to me for my accommodation. This was at the bottom of a garden full of orange trees. I worked in the kitchen, made some bread, rolls and plain cakes and some sweets for afters. As I have said, America was not at war so there was plenty of rations. I had as much beer and cigs. As I wanted and did not have to work too hard. I was also well paid. This was great going, but there was nothing to do in my off duty time as Nazareth was only a shanty town. Well, this went on for about three months and then I was told that I had to return to the Bakery. The officer took me back and he tried to get me transferred to his hospital, but, this was not possible, as I have said they were not at war. So, I had to go back. I found that there were a lot of Italian P.O.Ws in camp and that they were taking over from us and
that the famous 10th Bakery was being disbanded and we were all going to a transit camp in Egypt.

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