- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Arthur J. Harvey
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 November 2004
10th July 1943
Our Officers Mess.
As the car draws up in the narrow dusty lane, one can see precious little either side except white walls about fifteen feet high. On the left, or seaward side, the wall is continuous for some hundred feet or so, with glimpses of orange trees above the wall top. On the right there is a green metal gate let into the wall, hrough the bars of which a flight of stone steps is visible. A fancy tile let into the wall at the side of the gate is gaily writen with :- “Villa Leontine”
There is a dangerous step-over immediatly in front of the gate as it opens, then up the steps, about a dozen or so. Here is a garden about twelve yards wide and fifteen feet long, with a main path cotinuing from the top of the steps to a white marble staircase entering the house.
On either side is a fancy arrangement of small concrete paths, edged with curved tiles standing on end. The soil is very red and no plants grow in it, except for several fairly high trees, which cast a heavy shade over the whole garden. These trees are assorted orange, lemon, walnut, and hibiscus, the latter having enormous red flowers like hollyhocks. The garden slopes up to the house, then the white staircase takes you into the first floor, by which time the level of the tree-tops is reached.
This floor is actually the ground floor, for one walks straight through into a shady yard with yet another sharp rise in the garden at the rear.
On the ground floor is the dining room, a rich dark furnished roomwith double opening french windows. A very small balcony not more than a foot wide gives a view, of the sea and docks over the tops of the orange trees.
The floors throughout are tiled richly, which keep very clean and cool. Across the passage is a kitchen fitted with gas stove, electric frig, stone sink cupboards etc. The corresponding room to the dining room is my bedroom, which I share with Henderson.
The wallpaper is rather hectic, a deep red, but quite well done. The ceiling is avery good white.
I have my camp-bed with a teak cupboard as a bedside fitment, which is crowned by Edie’s poly photo, a fancy vase and an ashtray is all I keep on top of this. In the recess behind the door is my self-constructed wardrobe which gives good hanging space for all our uniforms.
The telephone stands on an ebony pedestal. My tin trunk and row of polished boots and shoes about completes the scene. Upstairs we have bedrooms for the other officers and above my room is the ante-room which holds the bar and the wireless set etc. In this room we have a settee and half a dozen chairs all richly upholstered in red velvet, with a mahogany desk
The view from the verandah is absolutly magnificent. The whole landscape is well clear of the orange trees in the garden, and the dominating item is the wide stretch of mediterranean which commands a full view from right to left.
On the right, the town of Algiers extends for perhaps five miles round the bay, then comes portions of cultivated fields and two more villages, before the eye reaches Cap Matifon, which is about nine miles distant, and eighteen miles round the bay.
To the left lies the main town of Algiers curving round to the grand Mosque which ends the view on the horizon, about five miles away.
Straight before us, lies the docks, about one mile away and probably 400 feet below us. Actually the dock area is something like four miles away ending with the mole de Peche, wqhich is very civilian in character with hundreds of tiny yachts and launches all now laid up, and unused.
The bulk of the naval vessels are towards this northern end, leaving the south for nerchant men and tankers. There is always a goodly collection of vessells in the bay,outside the boom,which varies from twenty to sixty ships of about 7,000 tons or so. Naval vessels never tarry outside, but come in very gracefully, straight through the boom and to their moorings.
The sun rises slap over Cap Matifon with with a glorious red dazzle picking at all the ships with a crimson edge, and turning the towns buildings into clear cut pink and shadow. At this time of day the town looks its best. Modern high blocks of flats and business houses, with long horizontal outlines. Nearly every wall surface is pure white or cream, with all roofs in brilliant red tiles.
I must say this impression from here is 300% too good in reality. For when one gets close up to these buildings the streets and lower floors are most objectionally filthy. However it is a continual source of wonderment to us all, even now, that the view looks so splendid from here.
The sea nearly always is calm and a lovely deep blue colour. Only on the right, near Maison Carrie can any breakers be seen. There is no tide of course and very seldom any real rough weather enters the bay.
To bring the view to earth, below us are oranges lemons etc growing from about an inch or less in july, to two and a half inches now in September.
They have so far been dark green and we understand they are really mandarins.
The hibiscus treeshave an unending succession of huge crimson blooms, as large as Rhododendrons, but shaped more like a double Petunia. The flowers are very short lived possibly one day only, but there is always a lot out. A couple of plants of the lovely heliotrope grow against the side walls, about five or six feet high. But the flowers are almost colourless, and one has to give three or four hard smells to associate it with the cherry pie of England.
In one of the centre beds is a pot grown plant of Draceana or Cordelyne, about ten years old I should say, with a stem about four feet high. Its pot is packed full of roots and and the base of the stem widens to almost a foot across, owing to its being cramped up or so. About thirty other large pots hold Aspidistras and a few more Asparagus ferns.
On a low shelf at the top of the wall at the side of the entrance steps stand a hundred pots or thereabouts varying from thumb pots to large twelve inch ones. The plants in these pots are mostly succulents, with a few rosette type cacti. Our old friend Crassula Tetragona grows up to three feet high in one of them. When I first got settled in somewhere around July 10th, it hit me as a craze to give them all a clean up, which they badly needed.
I never saw so much insect life, all kinds of crawling things and flying insects were disturbed by my upheavals. The most interesting fellow was a black, horny lizard which ran from under a pot and straight down the vertical wall, where it vanished at the bottom of the steps.
After the general clean up we had piles of empty pots, for many of the plants had dried out completly and were quite dead. However the garden looked much greener and better.
There was quite a tall tree of some kind growing outside my bedroom window which I attacked with an axe and quickly disposed of its top branches and trunk. It was hardly missed from the gardens point of view, but made a vast difference to my bedroom. The light was greatly improved and my room immediatly became one of the nicest in the house instead of the dullest.
A few days made a great difference to our comfort, and we were all quite at home in a very short while. Then suddenly my routine was vastly changed.
The weather at this time, was terribly hot and everywhere was simmering during the afternoon. I was busy in the docks office when suddenly I was conscious of a terrific orange flash ! A deafening explosion and the window frame, door frame, came crashing about me, my table got up and knocked me flying out of the other door and into the workshop. The air was full of plaster, glass,papers,dust and more deafening crashes.
A terrific crack above me, was followed by more dust, glass, plaster, and shrapnel and then all was quiet.
Outside was an enormous column of black smoke with fiery orange flashes emanating from the base. Drums of oil and parts of a ship were being tossed into the air, amid heavy explosions and the roaring of a clossal fire.
Yes! A ship had exploded just outside and was now blazing from stem to stern.
My men were carrying the less fortunate out of the shed, and I saw at once that many were seriously hurt. My own left hand was covered with blood and all fingers were numb.
I climbed into Mr. Solomans office, over a wreckage of windows doors bricks and walls. The first aid box I found on the floor, burst open, and I got a shell bandage for my hand, and an armfull of other materials for the men outside.
The hospital ship “ Lady Nelson” was laying at Quai Lalais and to this, I directed the casualties. The shed was a shambles covered with an inch or so of splintered glass, and twisted ships girders. Somehow I got on my motor cycle and drove it out, over the glass, to the hospital ship gangway, and left it there.
Sgt-Major Lawson was a terrible sight, and I helped get him onto the ship, and laid him in the gangway near the operating theatre, covering him up with blankets.
All told I put seventeen men on the “Lady Nelson” and some received first-aid treatment and some had to wait. I couldn’t get anyone to see to my hand so I went back to the scene of the fire and, we mustered the rest of the men to take stock. Three men from our stores were missing and several others unaccounted for. Rumours were that a few had got away by boat to Grand Mole as the quay was blocked at the road entrance.
The ship which was the Fort Confidence was burning very seriously, threatening ten or a dozen other ships lying the basin. Within a quarter of an hour, the basin was clear as one by one the merchant men crashed out by cutting their hawsers.
The hospital ship Lady Nelson also pulled out, breaking the gangways as she went, our wounded men were still on board. I now saw the cause of the explosion which was in another merchant man alongside Quay Fedalah.
She was blown clean in half with all her forward parts scattered as shrapnel around the dock area. Her stern was laying out at an angle, firmly on the bottom of the sea. A destroyer had a line aboard the burning vessel and her ties were severed, whereupon she slowly headed for the open sea, still throwing forty gallon drums of oil high into the air, and sending up a column of black smoke to a height of a thousand feet.
Her sides were glowing bright red, huge gushes of deep orange flame belched from her in half a dozen places. Slowly she was towed out to the open sea and along the beach to Hussein Bay where she was beached.
For just over three weeks she poured out a dense black smoke screen then eventually her back broke and she lowered her miserable hulk into the sea bed. Thus went to their end another two ten-thousand ton merchant vessels.
The explosion was made up of two sea mines, going to England for examination, a pile of ammo on the quay, and four thousand tons of 100 octane aviation petrol. There was, in addition, a hole as big as a bathing pool, blown out of the quayside, and several yards of railway lines missing.
It was now time that something was done to my hand, so when Capt. Gunner came along, we made a tortuous way out on my motor cycle, towards the Mustapha Hospital in town.
The devastation in Algiers was terrible, all roofs were off for a mile or so, and roller shop fronts were billowing out as far as three miles from the scene. Capt Gunner did some tricky riding through the wreckage and crowds and left me at Mustapha where I thought I would receive a dressing.
Much to my disgust however I was taken to 96th Hospital by Colonel King, and reluctantly I found myself “admitted” and popped into bed.
Hospital life is very peaceful. It is quiet and clean. Gentle feet go padding about the wards comforting and healing. The sisters are for ever patient, cheerful, and competant. Cool white sheets, soft pillows, neatly tucked-in pale blue blankets and nothing to do but lay quietly resting. I had my hand cleaned and my face also, for I had numerous cuts on my head but of no importance, and after waiting a full dat, I was operated on under Pentathol which is given as an injection in the right arm.
I dimly remember walking back to my bed supported by two sisters where I slept peacefully for several hours. When light came to me once more, my left arm was in a sling and my whole hand and wrist set hard in plaster.
This hospital life held me for fourteen days, when I was allowed to resume light duty with plater still guarding my weak fingers.
I met many interesting friends in the wards. Some who had a great deal of courage and it was grand to see the overjoyed look in some eyes at the prospect of going back to England. But I reverently hoped that I may be given the chance to return to Edie a fit man, even if I had to wait many more lonely years.
The sisters work magnificently. Thei conditions were very rough for officers. The hours were at least twelve per day. And yet they manage to keep very clean, neat, and some quite pretty.
It was in their eighth month, that showers were supplied for their use. They were still under canvas, with hurricane lamps at night and were not allowed out after 22.00 hrs. Certainly a tough job for young women, and a very fine performance.
The 96th as a building was confined to an officers surgical block, X-ray rooms, operating theatre, offices, dental nose and ear rooms, etc.
The main wards for men and medical officers were under canvas, although super-nissen huts were in process of erection to supersede the canvas.
Our ward, was large, airy,with fifteen beds in it. The walls were pale cream enamelled, the floor brown patchwork terrazzo. All windows were gauze covered, and each bed had its mosquito net above it.
The O.C. and other officers came to see me regularly and letters from Edie reached me once or twice a week.
An arab orderly got us plentiful supplies of grapes, melons,eggs eggs peaches. Eggs were always 5 fr. each. Full black market prices.
Owing to na red —tape order( which is more or less necessary I know) I was discharged from the 96th to G.R.T.D. at Cap Matifon, Jean Bart village. The O.C. worked very hard to get me straight back to the unit, and actually did the trick in two days when ten is more the usual thing.
I was pretty miserable at Jean Bart. Mostly because my hand was still completly out of action, which didn’t make it too easy for roughing it. I had no kit, no bed, no tent.
I couldn’t bathe, when there were beautiful bathing facilities.
Bullfrogs or “Crapand” crawled ove my face in the night. Cacalos screeched all day long in the trees. Mosquitos dive-bombed me all day long.
So I was very pleased to see Major Butcher with a utility to take me back the eighteen miles to algiers and useful work once more.
Capt. Lainton had not been so lucky as I, and he was still in Mustapha Hospital with a broken neck. Later on, he was flown back to Englandwhere he would be able to proper treatment. This left the whole of Louis Billiard workshops on my hands, and for some time I felt as though I was in charge of a huge machine careering along without breaks.
Eventually I gathered complete knowledge of all the details and once again felt confident that everything was under control.
Major Butcher at this stage often expressed his satisfaction that the whole department was going very well, and expressed his intention that I would benefit as soon as the vacancy could be found.
Another catastrophy took place on Mole Louis Billiard today, when fire broke out aboard the 7,000 ton “Fort Lamont”.
Starting very small at about 11.30 hrs with smoke canisters in the ‘tween decks of No. 1 hatch, the fire grew ominously, until at 1300 hrs, it was decided to tow the ship into the bay. Several hundred H.E. shells and bombs were carried to safety but a nasty pile still remained whe she was towed out into deep water.
By some awful chance, a destroyer went alongside not knowing the nature of the cargo, and a submarine was laid by to shell the burning ship below the water line. The sub found her mark satisfactorily but soon after, the lower No. 1 hold exploded, and the whole collection; ship, destroyer small craft alongside were scrapped.
The destroyer was subsequently salvaged and was made seaworthy in Malta within five weeks. The loss of life was rather heavy, and tragically entirely unneccessary.
Enemy air activity over Algiers was reasonably light, but when it was at all threatening, the defence of the area showed itself to be the equal of anything in England.
One particular night I well remember when enemy heavy bombers were clocked-in over Blidah. The planes were allowed to come within about five miles before the main barrage went up.
I should say that Naval vessels numbered about seventy-five including the K.G.N. and the Howe. The merchant men numbered probably 150, and what a night it was.
Every gun in the Port pumped up lead, from Bofors, Heurlecons, and Hispano to the 5.25s of the K.G.
It was a most impressive sight. Just one huge sheet of red tracers making an impenetratable pillar.
The planes were forced to dive in sideways without actually crossing the target and very few bombs fell in the dock area. One landed nastily near to our mess, and quite a few windows were broken. In the morning there was huge gap in ”Fontaine Blue” and one or two families wiped out.
Up to this date I have not yet seen twopence worth of damage to any ship in Algiers by bombing.
Very often we would shoot down half a dozen of our own balloons in the barrage, and some damage was caused by low trajectory shots. , cleaning away the cross-trees and rigging of our own ships. A few planes were downed in these raids, but usually well out to sea.
My wedding anniversary was a very ordinary day as regards work, but I did manage to gather a small bunch of roses from the garden as a token of England and Home.
Edie timed a letter very nicely, writing it on the 3rd of the month, and it arrived at lunch time on the 10th.
Five years, very happily married and yet four of these I have been miles away from my darling.
For some time past now, I have been urged to take my weeks leave but my hand has been out of commission until now, which explains why I am the practically the last of we officers to go.
I had asked permission to take my motor cycle, so at about two o’clock I set off, with George my batman following in a utility with my kit.
The journey is about an hour westward through “El Biar” “La Trappe” and “Cheragas”.
The road is excellent all the way, making it possible to cruise at 40 quite easily.
End of Diary
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.