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Wish me Luck as you Wave me Goodbye - Sgt. John (Jack) Phillips, Royal Engineers, Postal Section, Cairo, Egypt

by jmichaelp

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Archive List > British Army

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People in story: 
John Ernest Graham Phillips, Gwendoline Phillips
Location of story: 
Swansea, Wales, UK, and Cairo, Egypt
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 November 2005

Jack Phillips 1941 Great Pyramid of Giza Egypt

The photograph is of my Father, John (known as Jack) Phillips, taken in 1941 shortly after he was posted from the UK to Egypt where the Allies were fighting the North Africa campaign. In this photo, he is sitting astride a Camel, dressed in desert uniform and wearing his 'dress cap' with the badge of his regiment, the Royal Engineers, to which he was attached. At that time he was 31 years old and a Sapper in the Postal Section. The picture was taken on leave from Cairo where he was stationed, near the 'Great Pyramid of Giza' in Egypt.

The Postal Section had no home leave for the duration of the war. This was because of the u-boat threat. But there was leave to Alexandria, N Africa.

Jack volunteered for service via the Territorial Army in April 1940. He trained in Bournemouth. When Jack embarked from the UK for Egypt, troop ships had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the Southern tip of Africa, very dangerous because of the u-boat threat, and a journey of over two months from 5 February to 22 April 1941, by the time they reached Suez. Despite plentiful food rations, the long voyage put strain on provisions; but ships could be resupplied en route and stopped at Freetown and Capetown. The troops were delighted to be given canned fruit upon reaching port.

Initially in 1941, Jack's Army career began as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers at GHQ Cairo Postal Section He was promoted to Corporal at Postal Directorate Cairo GHQ and later in 1941 served in the Air Formation Postal Unit for a short time. His service also included duties at army camps in the Egyptian desert where temperatures soared to over 38'C and nights were freezing cold.

In 1944 Jack was promoted to Staff Sergeant and was awarded the Africa Star for his duties in the theatre of war in Feb 1945 while serving at the Postal Directorate GHQ Cairo. He was released from Cairo to the UK in Jul 1945 and remained as a reserve until Feb 1946.

Jack's wife, Gwendoline Phillips, endured the duration of the war in Swansea without her husband for over five years while he was in Egypt. Her family home was bombed in the Blitz on 16 February 1943, in the last recorded high explosives air raid on the city. The family survived only by Gwen’s remarkable premonition. She awoke in the night and awoke her mother and daughter taking them safely under the steel table shelter under the stairs just in time, as the house next door received a direct hit, killing the occupants and demolishing Gwen’s house. There had been no warning. I was born after the war. Jack worked as a counter clerk at Swansea's main Post Office until his death in 1954 from a heart attack.

The Phillips' family history records show that the male line as far back as Jack's Great Grandfather, Isaac, were employed in the Post Office or GPO telegraph services. The 1881 Census records show that Isaac, born in the old county of Pembroke, was the Postmaster at Dale Post Office near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. Jack's Grandfather was a Telegraph Officer in Bridgend and his father was a Telegraph Inspector in Swansea.

J Phillips’ Release Papers Record.

Trade: Clerk and Telegraphist
Military Conduct: Exemplary

Testimonial from Major, Commanding Officer:

J Phillips has served in the Army Post Office for five and a half years attaining the rank of sergeant. He has proved himself to be very trustworthy, reliable, tactful and intelligent, and to possess excellent powers of command. He can confidently be recommended to give energetic, loyal and efficient service.

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Message 1 - Troopships to Egypt

Posted on: 13 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mr Phillips

You say of your father that "When Jack embarked from the UK for Egypt, the troop ship had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope ... a journey of over two months from 5 Feb to 22 April 1941. The rations on board were minimal and there were fruit shortages. When they eventually disembarked at Suez the troops were delighted to be given canned fruit to help restore their Vitamin C intake".

The implication, as I read it, is that your father's troopship was alone at sea for all this time, 9 weeks and 3 days, on minimum rations with a lack of vitamin C.

Almost certainly this was not the case. Because of U-Boat danger ships sailed in convoy from Britain with Royal Navy escort, usually two destroyers but sometimes more depending on the size of the convoy. The escorting ships would also be changed as the convoy entered seas under different Royal Navy Commands, initially ships of the Home Fleet and Atlantic Fleet for the journey south on the west coast of Africa, but for the journey north up the east coast, ships of the British Pacific Fleet, then based at Kilindini (Mombasa) in British East Africa.

Convoys usually stopped at Freetown in Sierra Leone, to take on fresh supplies and water with troops remaining on board, before proceeding on to South Africa, then part of the British Empire, where the troops were given shore leave, ranging from a few days to weeks. The main stopping point was Cape Town, but Durban and other ports were also used. From there the troops bound for Egypt sailed to Suez.

Food on troopships was adequate and more varied than civilian rations. The government was well aware that a lack of vitamins C and B were the cause of scurvy and they took proper precautions to ensure that troops sent to North Africa would arrive, after their hazardous journey, fit to fight. Indeed, any canned fruit in Suez in 1941 would have got there by ship from the same route from South Africa.

Nonetheless, the journey your father took was very dangerous and many ships, including some troopships, were lost to U-Boat packs constantly hunting for them. I am pleased he arrived safely, all too many didn't.

You can read of a typical troopship journey here A2795592.

Kind regards,
Peter Ghiringhelli


Message 2 - Troopships to Egypt

Posted on: 13 November 2005 by jmichaelp

Dear Mr Ghiringhelli

Thank you for sending me your views. I don't wish to give the impression that my father's ship was without escort, this seems highly unlikely. As for my comment about troops being provided with fruit; this seems to show that the authorities were indeed looking after the wellbeing of out troops and doing all they could to ensure their health. I was relating here a story passed to me by my mother, my father having died when I was seven years old. I wonder whether this particular convoy may have been delayed somewhat by weather or enemy actions in the Atlantic Ocean and the fruit was actually supplied at Cape Town.

Thanks again for your insight

Kind Regards
Michael Phillips


Message 3 - Troopships to Egypt

Posted on: 13 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Michael

Convoys never delayed intentionally, even if a ship sank they just pressed on. If a convoy stopped in mid ocean it was a dead duck. The speed was set by the slowest ship in the convoy, but they kept moving. Zig-zagging in unison on prearranged signals.

A lone U-Boat very rarely attacked a convoy. If it came across one it would trail it and radio for all U-Boats to converge. Then there would be a concerted pack attack. Much more effective from the German's point of view. We can assume that this did not happen on your father's convoy (evidence from silence).

The convoy system worked very well and not all were attacked. In the beginning a lot of people took some convincing, they thought that a convoy would be dangerous in that it would present a slow-moving large target. But the fact is that the oceans are so immense that it is as difficult to find a convoy as it is to find a single ship. Moreover, a couple of destroyers can protect a large number of ships but could not possibly escort a single ship.

Your father's troopship would have arrived in Cape Town at the height of summer, being in the southern hemisphere, with plenty of fruit available.




Message 4 - Troopships to Egypt

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by jmichaelp

Hi Peter

Thanks for the information. A very rough estimate of the average speed of the overall voyage puts it at around 4mph (sorry I'm not into knots) allowing three days in port en route. This would seem to confirm that it was a convoy zigzagging. There may have been storms in the Bay of Biscay at that time of year. I believe my father had a tendency not to cause alarm in letters home, (for example we know he was hospitalised in May 1942 for eleven days with an illness, from his army records, but he never mentioned it), and he may not have mentioned enemy action but its equally possible that none occurred. I've amended the story to be more circumspect in the light of the information.

I'd be interested to hear of anything that sheds light on the service of the REPS in Egypt. A book you may find interesting which covers the period historically with a Welsh slant is "The Cairo Eisteddfod - and other Welsh adventures in Egypt" by Ivor Wynne Jones (printed in English). ISBN 0-86381-830-7




Message 5 - Troopships to Egypt

Posted on: 14 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Michael

Regarding your estimate of the speed of your father's ship, 4 mph, and your reference to knots. A 'knot' is simply a measure of speed (nautical miles per hour). For a quick conversion divide MPH by 1.15 - so your speed of 4 mph would be 3.5 knots, far far too low for a troopship. A ship could be reduced to 2 knots or less sailing full speed into a howling gale, but such conditions do not obtain over thousands of miles. The most likely explanation is a prolonged stay in Cape Town. But all this is guess work unless you know the name of the troopship, or better still, the code number of the convoy.

A troopship would be in a 'fast' convoy. 'Fast' Convoys were for ships which could maintain a speed above 10 knots, up to 15 knots; 'slow' convoys, were for those that could not achieve 10 knots (a common speed for 'slow' convoys was 7.5 knots). Ships that could exceed 15 knots were allowed to sail on their own unescorted , such ships were know as 'independents', for example the two Queens. A fast convoy would zigzag at top speed, but still giving the convoy an average linear speed of between 7 and 9 knots, way above your calculated 3.5 knots.

Against this the U-boat travelled in a straight course at far greater speed. There were a great many variants of U-Boats, but the main types in early 1941 were Types VIIB, VIIC, and IXB. The XIIB and C had a surface speed of 17 knots and the IXB 18.2 knots. U-Boats U-105, U-106, and U-124 were all Type IXB and were in the South Atlantic, off Freetown, at the time. Focke-Wulf FW200 Kondors were used for spotting convoys; these were long-range four engined aircraft. Around about the time of your father's convoy, tactics were changed and instead of a U-Boat calling in other U-Boats to form an attacking wolf-pack on locating a convoy, they were instead to call in an air strike. A successful example of this was in February 1941, when U-37 spotted a convoy out of Gibraltar; Kondor bombers then homed in and sank nine ships.

When I mentioned 'evidence from silence' I didn't only mean that of you father - I meant general records. For example, on the night of 23 February 1941 (when your father's convoy was at sea), Convoy OB288 was attacked by a wolf-pack consisting of four U-Boats and eight ships were sunk. All such attacks are well known and recorded.

Many thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds interesting.


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