- Contributed by
- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
- People in story:
- Leonard Scott, Sgt McLauchlin, Sgt Mackenzie, Comte Charles Guyot de St Remy, Sgt Challoner, Sgt Cartwright, Captain David, Brigadier Rabino
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 May 2004
(Left to right) Sgt McLauchlin, Sgt Mackenzie, and Corporal Len Scott in Algiers in 1942. My wife's comment: 'You look as if you'd been sleeping in your battle dress ever since you landed'...
A Catholic, a Presbyterian and an estaminet
Two days after we RAPC lads disembarked in Algiers a dozen of us were moved a few miles west. By what must have been some mental blackout on the part of the Town Major we were billeted in an estaminet where Sergeant McLauchlin sampled every liqueur available, grew fighting drunk and, when ejected, thrust his arm through a window with bloody results. I interpreted his ravings to mean that he wanted to fight 'all you bloody Proddies' a word meaningless to me until interpreted by Sergeant Mackenzie, a Presbyterian Scot: 'He means Protestants.' McLauchlin was the first Belfast Irishman I had met - a 'regular' (professional) soldier. They were an odd couple. McLaughlin alternated between bellicosity and sentimentality; Soft-spoken Mackenzie had a gift for horror stories about his life in the Merchant Navy, so demurely told that even the most improbable tales carried conviction, accompanied as they were by his gleaming eyes. Privately, I called him 'The Ancient Mariner'.
A surprising invitation
One evening, while taking the air outside our pub I was accosted by a young French officer who invited me to dinner with him and his wife in a fine villa near the sea. He told me that he was the Comte Charles Guyot de St.Remy and an ardent admirer of General de Gaulle, self-appointed leader of the Free French. I could not imagine what motive he had in wining and dining me unless it was sheer good nature. Soldiers on active service know little about the backstairs politics of a foreign land. The Comtesse was elegantly beautiful and handed me her visiting card when I left. It was some time before I learned that our landing had been facilitated by the uprising of a group of young anti-Vichyites who had seized control of all the key-points in Algiers. Perhaps he was one of them.
Now we moved a mile or two west to Pointe Pescade and into an abandoned Casino perched high on a cliff overlooking the sea. The Casino reminded me of a set from 'Citizen Kane'. I dwelt amid marble halls, marble steps, huge pillars and great mirrors. We cooked in a kitchen that would not have disgraced Henry VIII's Hampton Court and dined in a hall measuring about 150 feet by 80. When we spoke above a whisper the place rang with echoes. A six-foot stuffed bear stood guard at the foot of the main staircase. On rough nights the sea beat against the windows. When calm I could lean out and gaze into clear, so clear, water, the bottom strewn with rocks and sea-plants. Was it Pliny who could lean from his villa-window and fish?
Across the bay rose mountains. The dawns shamed the finest sunsets I had seen in England. First the peaks were transmuted into a mass of pale gold which grew steadily brighter. Then the sky was streaked with fiery red, shell pink and pale blue. Up exploded the sun behind the mountains - prisoner released - and, suddenly, it was day.
Every paradise conceals serpents. The pool sheltered sea urchins whose spines broke off in our feet and festered. The place was adequately supplied with latrines but there was an all-pervading smell which we attributed to 'drains'. Not so. Before our arrival the Casino had been occupied by refugees from the Spanish Civil War. They were, apparently, innocent as to the purpose of latrines. We found little piles in the oddest places - the oddest being within an Ali Baba jar some six feet high. Paradise was finally lost when the 'main party' arrived with too many officers and ambitious NCOs. Guards, fire-pickets and regimentation were introduced. The bear which we had grown to love was banished to the basement and we were banished to newly erected Nissen huts of paralysing discomfort in the hot weather. Lance-Sergeant Challoner and I, relaxing by the sea front, were called to attention by a spit-and-polish Staff Sergeant Cartwright and comprehensively rebuked for our slovenly and unsoldierly appearance. Threats of disciplinary action brought an unsoldierly response to my lips where my tongue suppressed it.
Salvation came speedily. I and six others were singled out and piled into a truck with all our kit. We were taken into Algiers, to the Rue de la Liberté and into Barclay's Bank whose furious manager - Mr. Poole, a Lincolnshire man - was ordered to vacate the first floor. We were now 27 Area Cash Office under the command of a little fat man named Captain David, erstwhile bank manager in an English county town. In an as-yet-unimaginable future I would come to associate him with a certain Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army fame.
We had about ten different types of currency to handle and a balance had to be struck at the end of each day. Our first evening found us £20 adrift and our captain swore that we would not go off duty until the error was resolved. Then the air-raid sirens sounded and our captain decided it was time for him to make for his villa up the coast. We slept where we worked, each making himself as comfortable as possible. Sergeant Challoner was the most comfortable - that shrewd Brummie had brought a Li-Lo air mattress which he inflated each evening. I found a padded bench six feet long, but only eighteen inches wide. I placed this against a wall and kept from rolling off by the judicious positioning of two chairs. I did not suffer from insomnia. The bank's Spanish concierge and his wife occupied a small flat on the premises and were happy to cook for us. Several floors up on the flat roof there was a huge wood-fired 'copper' in which we did our laundry and admired the view - the sea on one side and the Kasbah on the other... a higgledy-piggledy heap of white buildings and grim little alleys climbing up a hill. Figures moved on the flat roofs - Arab women washing their linen. Picturesque, but if the wind were blowing from that direction we did not linger.
The Kasbah was out of bounds (off-limits) to all military personnel. Legends circulated - maybe more than legends - about soldiers who had tried to 'chat up' Arab women and whose bodies, when discovered, lacked certain organs. The ordinary British soldier had a half-contemptuous, half-amused attitude towards the 'natives'. We were unaware that 'Arabs' were sometimes Berbers. The veiled women aroused little erotic interest. Most of those appearing in public were obviously so old and fat that the veil was a kindness. 'I'll get one for my old woman when I get home,' was a common remark.
In our first-floor Barclays office we supplied money to local units and to visiting officers. Arthur Helliwell, a popular columnist with The People appeared. I knew him well. He was now a war correspondent. Randolph, son of Winston Churchill, also appeared. We cast up our accounts each evening, played cards and slept. Life was very boring. Then everything changed for me.
Enter Brigadier Rabino
A large civilian, accompanied by an obsequious Captain David was taken into the latter's office at the head of the stairs leading down to the bank proper. Soon afterwards I was summoned. 'This is Brigadier Rabino,' said David. 'He is the Banking and Currency Adviser, British North Africa Forces’. Should I salute a Brigadier in mufti? Should I salute when not wearing a cap? I saluted. 'The Brigadier will be working here but the R.A.S.C. clerk he was promised has not arrived. In the meantime I am detailing you to assist him in every way. This (to the Brigadier) is Corporal Scott. All right corporal. Dismiss.'
Soon afterwards I observed David moving all his papers out of his office and occupying a corner of our room. Then I was summoned. The Brigadier was swarthy, decidedly un-English and delightfully informal. 'Sit down Scott,' he invited, adding: 'I'm not a soldier. I was manager of the Westminster Bank in Paris until the Germans arrived. My job is to link up with the French and American finance representatives here and keep in touch with War Office and the Treasury. Do you have shorthand and typing?' 'Yes sir. I was posted here from War Office F9. I was a confidential clerk.' 'Excellent. Now I don't have time for military conventions. We will work when work is to be done - there will be a lot of it - and I don't want you saddled with guard duties, fatigues or any of that. Sometimes we'll work until midnight or later. Do you understand?' 'Perfectly, sir.' 'Good. Now I have to meet my opposite numbers at Allied Force Headquarters. Amuse yourself until about six tonight.'
It was two o'clock. With a grin at my fellow-labourers I took my cap and sauntered out into Algiers. I sat in the little park off the Rue Michelet, composed a letter to Minna, fended off the shoe-shine boys and resolved that I would try to do this job so well that the missing clerk, should he surface, could never replace me. At six I returned and at seven Rabino arrived. He dictated a lengthy memorandum to Mr. Speed, a P.U.S. (Permanent Under-Secretary) at War Office which had to be encoded (there was a special unit for this purpose). He checked my work, said 'Good' and sighed: 'I'm getting nowhere up there. I've got to wear my uniform. Nobody is going to take any notice of me until I'm dressed up like them.' He glanced at his watch. Three a.m. 'Get some rest, Scott,' said he, 'and take it easy until about six tomorrow evening.' Next day I went to a matinee at the Opera House and saw a creditable Carmen.
That evening my boss was a blaze of military glory, superfine khaki, red tabs and burnished insignia of rank. We worked as before and gradually I became familiar with the names of his opposite numbers up in the Hotel St. George where General Eisenhower ruled the roost... the American, Robert Murphy, the Frenchman Couve de Murville and half a dozen lesser lights. A few weeks later I was issued with a pass to enter this Holy of Holies. Allies? To judge by the messages I sent for encoding they could be passable enemies.
Rabino was in an impossible position. His 'establishment' consisted of himself and me. If he wanted a messenger he had to seek one from David. He had no driver and no car. He used a French civilian who had to get a permis de circuler from the French authorities, who were politely obstructive. The driver had to be paid by the British who took their time. His French and American counterparts were trailed by posses of underlings and interpreters. They had large cars driven by smart and pretty - always pretty - females in military uniform.
Christmas was approaching and though I had written to my wife Minna twice weekly I had had no replies. I began to worry.
This story continues in: Victory in Algiers.
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