- Contributed by
- Stockport Libraries
- People in story:
- Harry Blood
- Location of story:
- Geneifa, Cairo, Mersa Matruh, Western Desert, Sidi Barrani
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 June 2004
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Mary Blood, Harry’s widow, and has been added to the site with her permission. She fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
From his call-up into the Army in January 1941 until his ‘demob’, Harry Blood kept a diary. It followed his early progress from Glasgow to Egypt, around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Western Desert to Sicily and Italy. Near the end of his service and his diaries, he had a chance meeting with W.A.A.F. Corporal Mary Pettit at a tram stop in Brussels. Not lacking in graphic and humourous descriptions, there came a happy ending as he and Mary married not long after, having a long and happy marriage. Only minimal editing has been done to exclude one or two brief entries which contained little of interest.
“15th June 1941. After almost seven weeks on board we landed by a small steamer this morning. We were then taken by bus over desert for about a three hour journey. Having passed some P.O.W. camps on the way we eventually arrived at the R.A.S.C. Base Depot at Geneifa. It is just a collection of tents and a few huts, a cinema and, I believe, several canteens. Went to the N.A.A.F.I. in the evening.
16th June. Several parades. In the evening bathed in the Great Bitter Lake which tastes just like its name. The Suez Canal goes right through the Lake. What does not appear in my diary at this point, and something I well remember, is that you had to be careful where you swam. You did not attempt to swim in the Nile, but if you fell in – then straight into sick quarters to be made a pincushion! The natives were accustomed to it. They washed themselves, their clothes and everything else in it.
17th June. Several parades and a ‘swim’ in the lake in the afternoon. In the evening the cinema to see ‘The House of Seven Gables’.
18th June. This morning Beken and I got sent on to another parade because we have no webbing. We finished up on the N.A.A.F.I. fatigue which consisted mainly of writing this diary.
19th June. Went in for Trade Test which seems fairly easy. Celebrated my 21st Birthday mainly with tea, buns and lemonade in Dumbarton House, a Church of Scotland canteen! The beer here isn’t very good.
20th June. Heard that I have passed the Trade Test. Down for posting, but got out of it because of being re-mustered as a clerk.
21st June. Started as a Clerk/Typist in Company Office.
22nd June. Finished the Company office job as the regular clerk has recovered from illness.
23rd June – 30th June. Usual routine including two guard duties, a short full-pack route march, a camp picket, a bren gun picket, a canteen fatigue and, lastly, digging holes. Hard work in this place!
1st July. Another fatigue – picking up papers! – very easy and I finished before 9am. Later on went into Dumbarton House canteen, out of the way. The day finished with a night picket at the Main Guard.
2nd July. Tired but, luckily, got short fatigue again. I was in Dumbarton House before 9.30am – out of sight!
3rd July. 6am to 12noon on P.O.W. escort – very interesting job. Night camp picket.
4th July. Light fatigue. Pay parade. Camp cinema to see ‘It’s a Date’.
5th July. General Auchinleck took over. P.O.W. escort again. Feet very sore! Inlying bren gun picket. Two air raid warnings.
7th July. Saw my name among those on posting list, together with Wally Statter and George Cornwall. We got Fred Harvey on as well, but George was then taken off.
8th July. Started on the 7am train to Ismailia. Lunch at Y.M.C.A. there then train to Cairo. 5pm at Abbassi Barracks, where we were told that the 7th Armoured Division had gone. Later we were told they had gone to Mersa Matruh. We had a walk round Cairo where we had, amongst other things, very good ice cream sodas!
9th July. Off at 5 am on the long train journey to Mersa Matruh, passing within sight of Alexandria. Spent the night in a Transit camp at Mersa Matruh. Pretty rotten conditions with thousands of flies round the food. They were not the only problem. I had a mess tin in each hand, waiting patiently in the queue for dinner. Fine – down swooped a large kite hawk and – my dinner was gone! I went back to the queue; the cook said, ‘You’ve just had your dinner!’ ‘Aye’, says I, ‘but a kite had it before me.’ Anyway, I did get another one.
This is now us away out ‘into the blue’. Why the blue? I’m not sure!
10th July. By lorry about thirty miles to 7th Armoured Division H.Q. – my first journey on the Western Desert. Started a clerical job – long hours. There is nothing here except a few lorries. The canteen truck has nothing at all to eat or drink. In fact it went to Tobruk and never came back. Will always remember those ice cream sodas we had in Cairo on Tuesday! Slept in two-man bivouacs at first, near to slit trenches – which took some digging in this hard, flat, stony ground! – but very soon slept in open in bedrolls or on the lorries.
Only unusual occurrences entered in future!
22nd July. Went to Mersa Matruh for a bathe, travelling in the back of an open 15 cwt truck. The Provost Marshal (himself) stopped our truck and took the names of the driver and myself for not wearing our topees – so I got put on a charge for the first time – and from a great height! When we came before the officer later we got off on a technical point as the report said I was driving without topee – which I couldn’t do! Soon after that topees seemed to disappear. However the swim at Mersa Matruh was fine – I’ve never seen such white sand and bright blue sea.
23rd July. Told that I am to be posted temporarily to the Coast Column of the Support Group, somewhere forward near Sidi Barrani.
24th July. By lorry to H.Q. 7 Support Group. Had very bad luck, the lorry going back with my rifle! Luckily it was soon sent back otherwise I could have been on a second charge in rapid succession – and it would have been a serious one!
25th July. On by lorry to H.Q. Coast Column, the roughest eighty mile journey I’ve ever had. Started clerical work – seems fairly easy – replacing someone on leave for a week or so. The flies seem an even worse nuisance than usual today.
2nd August. Lorry to ‘B’ Echelon, just west of Sidi Barrani. Two of us were in the back of an open 15 cwt truck on the way, when we got machine gunned by a Jerry plane, which came very suddenly and very low. It missed the truck, but we soon got out – very soon! – and dispersed in case he came back. We didn’t see him again.
13th August. Got my first letter from home, four months after leaving.
15th August. Two new clerks arrived; one is Bill Barnes, whom I knew at Aldershot.
16th August. Fred Harvey transferred to 58 Company, R.A.S.C.
29th August. Returned to rear H.Q after a week as relief clerk at Advanced H.Q. 7th Armoured Division. In one of the office trucks we have a chameleon tied on a piece of string. It obliges by darting its tongue out and helps to keep the flies down. We have to be very wary of scorpions – make sure none is in the bedroll and even now often shake out shoes before putting them on. Scorpions are sometimes found under stones. One was found; we made a shallow trench round it, filled it with petrol, making a ‘ring of fire’. When they can’t escape they commit suicide.
At present we have a weekly washing exchange. We just hand in our dirty clothes and get similar clean ones. It saves us washing our own which would use too much water in any case. It also saves darning socks – which is very good! At present I draw the Egyptian equivalent of 10/- (50 piastres) a week, quite enough for the desert.
10th September. Arthur Webb returned from leave today, which means I can go on leave tomorrow, which is great. The fact that there are no trees, flowers, or birds of any kind – other than camel thorn - in this place has sometimes a depressing effect on one. However a new start, which helps relieve this feeling was started here the other day. It was a sort of trip to the sea, leaving here early in the evening on a lorry, sleeping down on the coast and spending the following day until about 4pm either bathing, sleeping or strolling on the beach. I must say it’s certainly needed after the desert.
11th September. Away on leave going by truck to Mersa Matruh. Had to wait overnight for train to Cairo. Slept on the sand, fully dressed and with greatcoat over me!
12th September. By train to Cairo. On arrival, crowds of Egyptians swarmed round us with various hotel cards offering to take us to their hotels. The first one I saw was for the Byron Hotel so off I went in a gharry, a horse-drawn open cab. Then the tipping started. The main word in the language here is ‘backsheesh; which, of course, means ‘buckshee’, or something for nothing, or next to nothing, from supposedly rich ‘Inglesis’.
On arrival at the hotel I paid the cabman and the hotel boy. There were five of us in the bedroom at the Byron Hotel; the bed was good, with clean sheets every day. In the hotel there was a barber so, straight away I had a haircut, shampoo and shave. Another man cleaned my boots for me and both he and the barber, on being paid, said, ‘backskeesh’. I then had a bath and felt much better for all of it after so long.
I went down into the dining room and bought supper. The waiter said, ‘steak, chips, eggs, tomatoes?’ I said, ‘Yes, please, bring the lot’ – and he did – including three eggs! Felt very refreshed, both inside and out.
13th September. Bought a pair of shoes, 14/6d, and long stockings, and felt more comfortable still. During my leave in Cairo (Thursday 13th – Friday 21st September) I was often up at, or about, 8.30am, usually being roused by many street cries, especially one – and by a barrel organ in the street. A cup of tea and a newspaper, the ‘Egyptian Mail’ arrived about the same time.
But, back to the street cries for the moment. On the first morning of this leave in Cairo, I woke to find two of my room-mates at the window, laughing and I soon found the cause. One of the vendors had several cries but one of them sounded like ‘Arsoles Di-lottiya!’ Each morning in Cairo we listened as that call approached, passed, and faded away. It started our day in a cheerful manner! We never did discover what was being offered. The possibilities we considered were: -
a) what we heard was authentic Arab for some item
b) someone had informed the caller that what he said was the English for some of his wares
c) that he knew very well what he was saying and hoped we all heard it!
Some of us were soon putting our heads out of the window and calling, ‘Same to you!’
Returning to more mundane things, after one day’s bed and breakfast, 4/2d, I went on to Full Board, about 7/6d per day. The meals were excellent. Several times we went out with the Hotel Dragoman (guide) who charged 10/- per day, all expenses covered. He even bought us drinks, had a car for us and tipped everyone.
The first afternoon we drove to the Pyramids where I had my first camel ride. Camels are fairly steady when standing up but when sitting on the front or rear when they rise can be quite awkward. I got so used to it that I even tipped the camel wallah to let me try a gallop. After the camel ride we went into the largest Pyramid, that to Cheops, itself a big climb.
On our various trips we visited several Mosques and Muski (bazaars/markets) where we watched little kids busy making carpets. One afternoon, we had a walk by the Nile in a pleasant part of the city and visited Gezira Sporting Club on an island in the Nile. Went to a cabaret one evening, belly dancing, etc. The following evening we went to a dance at the Y.M.C.A. at which there were too many soldiers and too few girls. That was no use so we left early and went to a cinema which had a sliding roof.
We tried many restaurants and clubs, spending much of our time sampling ice cream, ice cream sodas, iced Horlicks and iced cocoa. The local beer isn’t very good. I started out on this leave with £10.10.0 and got back to the 7th Armoured Division with 1/-. I did send something home – perfume called ‘Secret of the Desert’ to Mother and Betty – but whether or not it was appreciated…..!!
23rd September. Having got the train back to Mersa Matruh yesterday, I got back to the camp (7th A.D. Rear H.Q.) today by lorry. The nights are quite cold here now, but the flies, which were the chief curse of the many curses of this country, have almost disappeared. We are working till late in the evening every day in the office here – in the truck, of course.
26th September. Today the Western Desert Force was renamed the 8th Army.
11th October. I received a parcel from the Daily Dispatch War Fund containing a football amongst other things. We got up several games with the ball, so my parcel was a great success. The days are stiflingly hot and the nights are very cold. Khamsins are frequent – sand devils.
18th November. The ‘Crusader’ advance, which was the first 8th Army attack started today. ‘Crusader’ for us lasted seven weeks, during which we went through the wire at Fort Maddalena and were constantly on the move. Always our trucks formed ‘close leaguers’ at nights to lessen the risk of being accidentally discovered by enemy tanks. We had our bedrolls by the lorry wheels, or on the lorries, many nights hearing tanks rolling past and wondering whose they were. Each morning we were up by dawn – bitterly cold – and immediately split into ‘open leaguer’ to make less of a target for air attack.
One thing most of us remember was the Tea! When the leading staff car signalled ‘Halt!’ – all out – a petrol can half filled with sand, some petrol on it, a match to it – and brew up. Much activity if the staff car signalled ‘forward again’ too soon. Sling everything over the tailboard, follow it, and ‘off’. Alec Lewis said the 8th Army motto was, ‘When in doubt, brew up’.
Several times we got stuck in deep sand and had to use our metal sand channels and push – then grab the channels and run after the vehicle as it dare not stop until reaching firm ground. I remember several air attacks, most especially one by Stukas which swooped down down wind when we were on the move. Luckily they missed but the noise was off-putting!
24th November. Rommel started his ‘Dash to the Wire’. At Rear H.Q. we just got out in time; I believe the Advance H.Q. had more trouble. Of course we did not know how the battle was going – only what we could see, which was very limited, plus scraps of griff (information) to some of us.
During December 1941 things apparently improved slowly, Tobruk was relieved, then Derna and Benghazi taken. After some rough weeks we reached Mechili. From Mechili, the 7th Armoured Division withdrew to Tmimi, just west of Gazala, about 24th December, prior to being relieved by the 1st Armoured Division, so there we celebrated Christmas.
Christmas dinner 1941 was little changed from the usual bully and biscuits but in the evening we had a better meal of tinned stuff and ‘punch’. I’m not sure what went into it but it tasted good."
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