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15 October 2014
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Else happened and I was in uniform. (Part 6)

by gloinf

Contributed by 
gloinf
People in story: 
Mr Geoffrey Dent
Location of story: 
Cairo, Tyre, Sidon, Beer-sheba, Tripoli, Lebanon
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A4563137
Contributed on: 
27 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr Dent with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

Apart from the heat our main concern was water — or rather the lack of it. Our daily ration was one bottle: that was two pints. ‘For all purposes’ that is to say that what you didn’t use for washing and shaving you could drink.

Needless to say ablutions were kept to a minimum. There must have been some water available for medical purposes — like washing wounds etc. I well remember trying to cool down a heat stroke victim.

He lay naked face down on a rubber sheet on a stretcher. A mug of tepid water was tricided onto the back of his neck. He then had to get off the stretcher while we emptied the water back into the mug.

This was repeated several times until the water was no cooler that the patient.

Usually by this time the patient had had enough and claimed to feel as much better, thank you.

Eventually the enemy attack had been repulsed and things were much quieter. We left our underground palace and moved on form time to time and on establishing ourselves on a lumpy bit of desert we were treated to a speech from our Company Commander:

“There are British tanks over there” he said, “and more over there — and Jerry is over there. The plan is to entice him into the trap and cut him off We shall not move from this position.

We, gentlemen, are the bait.” All delivered in a slightly Churchillian manner which was becoming a habit among senior officers; and subsequently they tried to sound like Montgomery. However, the whole performance was cut down to size when one of my rude and licentious colleagues remarked very loudly “What the fxxx would he want us for?”

It must have been about now that one afternoon the whole company was assembled in a semicircle to listen to a lecture on some medical matter by Sergeant Charlie — he of the life jackets — see July 4 don’t remember much about anything except that at some moment there came a flip-flop-thump noise and at the focal point of our semi circle between us and Charlie an unexploded shell landed.

There had been a bit of a tank battle going on in the valley below and I presume it was a bit of an overthrow. Whatever, it was a bit un-nerving. Then Sergeant Charlie pointed at one of the R L soldiery and said “Henry, get rid of that thing, will you?” After a pause came the reply “Get rid of the fxxxing thing yourself.

” ‘Oh Gawd’ I thought, ‘how does a regular army sergeant react to mutiny or whatever?’ Give Charlie his due, he just stepped forward and picked it up. Holding it at arm’s length at shoulder height, and exit stage right.

I don’t know what he did with it but he was soon back and carried on as before. I thought at the time that if it had exploded it would have been better if he hadn’t been holding it in front of his face; but with hindsight it was probably a solid piece of armour piercing metal that was designed to rattle about inside a tank and cause alarm and dismay to the crew. On the other hand it might not have been.

We were in the desert for a while longer and from our contact with the chaps in the infantry and artillery that we were looking after it became evident that morale was pretty high. Churchill had been on and gingered things up a bit — Montgomery had taken over and was an inspirational leader and the chaps were saying quite regularly, “if we don’t go through on the September moon, we will on the October one” and so it was.

Unfortunately but then the 133 had been taken out of the desert to be ‘mechanised’. It seems an odd thing for a dedicated and practising coward to say but I was genuinely sorry to miss the big one at El Alamein.

I think we had been on the wrong end of the broom for so long that it would have been lovely to be doing the chasing. Anyway, that’s the way it was and after a brief stop in Cairo,

we were heading north to Lebanon.
The day in Cairo was just long enough to visit a barber and order a breakfast of egg and bacon with toast and marmalade. The nearest we got was egg and chips and raspberry jam with the toast.

When we pointed out to the waiter that we had asked for marmalade, he replied “Yes, this jam marmalade.” We weren’t all that bothered.

It was a long and dusty road but it was intriguing to pass through towns with Biblical names : Tyre and Sidon and Beer-sheba. It made the Bible a bit more real somehow.

The road running northwards through Lebanon ran largely along the coastal strip and at one stage went through a fairly lengthy tunnel which had a kink in the middle which meant that it was not possible to see from one end to the other.

One well placed bomb could cut the main supply route for some time and so at each end was a machine gun position with a large notice warning that any vehicle stopping in the tunnel would be fired on. I must say I was very glad when we emerged at the other end.

Eventually we arrived at Tripoli, a modest sized township with a dock area about a mile down the road. We established a medical unit in a fairly large building that could have been a school.

We slept and relaxed in a building opposite with a fiat roof and large airy rooms — mostly marble. It was much harder to sleep on than the desert sands but it was clean and civilised with running water and proper toilet facilities — a rare change for the better.

I liked Tripoli; it had two cinemas and some modem French influence — shops but also the Arab old town with its souk or market, with open front shops selling leather goods, Damascus silk and dreadful looking foodstuffs including goats cheese being bailed out of sewn up goat skin.

There was Rug Street where every shop seemed to sell the some carpets and, of course, a solid row of metal workers hammering away. This was soon dubbed ‘Tin Pan Alley’.

There was also a Turkish bath which Ron Malby and I tried out at one stage — an interesting experience. The town must have had a bit of war experience as the Vichy French troops were removed from Syria and Lebanon but it must have been very slight and the townsfolk were just getting on with their normal lives.

Once the two countries were under British control roads and bridges were built to make control easier. Thus in Tripoli we had an Australian road building company — they were nearly all about six foot eight inches tall and several feet wide — there was a south African tunnelling company a bunch of marines down at the dock and some RAF chaps, mainly concerned with the weather.

To control this bunch of odd-bods there were eight military policemen, of which, for the most of the time at least half of them were under our tender care in hospital.

I hadn’t anything to do with the ‘wards’ but I did get involved with the admissions and first aid side of things and one day a huge Aussie turned up. “Hello”, I said what can I do for you?” In response he held out a thumb that was much wider than it should have been and very flat.

It was also a translucent shade of purple in colour. “What happened to that?” I asked “My cobber” he said. “My cobber brought down a fourteen pound hammer while I was still there.” I sought advice from the doctor present. “might as well try and stitch up a black currant jelly” was his summing up. “We’ll push it back more or less into the right shape then a light dressing and lots of strapping plaster.” The chap was delighted and went away expressing his thanks.

Life was pretty easy in Tripoli. Which made a nice change after the heat and dust of the desert Most afternoons we were able to go and have a swim in the Med.

Our sleeping quarters were pleasant but involved the use of mosquito nets which, although hung from the ceiling had no bed to tuck into. They had to be held to the floor by boots, mess tins and anything else capable of holding the thing to the floor.

About now our resident sleepwalker — see Catsfield 1940-41 — obeyed his subconscious in the middle of the night and set off on a stroll completely ignoring the mosquito net.

This coincided with an ex-mental nurse coming off guard duty who tried to restrain him. This resulted in the mosquito net catapulting boot, mess tins all over the room with the most amount of noise possible.

I think this must have the only time I have seen thirty men trying to get into the same toilet at the same time.

My final recollection of Tripoli was New Years Eve 1942. I was guard commander at the time but so many casualties were brought in that I found myself heavily involved in the first aid admissions.

The word must have got around among the Arabs that the place would be full of drunken soldiery who would be easy targets for stealing pay books and wallets.

Presumably the Germans would pay a good price for a British Army pay book. I think the possibilities were a bit exaggerated but in the last few hours of 1942 we had to admit eight casualties — all victims of assault with robbery in mind.

One, I recall, had been pursued and struck by a taxi which hooked a lump of flesh out of his thigh. The people in the wards must have wondered what the hell they would be sent next.

I know we did. Just before midnight a casualty was brought in with a scalp wound from his forehead to the back of his neck. Having patched him up and sent him to a ward.

The doctor I had been working with said “my colleagues have been celebrating the New Year for some time now and I am going to join them and catch up a bit.
If anything else comes in its yours”. God was very good to me that night — nothing else did come in.

So here we are in 1943. This was a year of abrupt and surprising changes, so what’s new?
We were soon on the move again — back down to the desert but with no sign of having been ‘mechanised’. This being January or February it wasn’t as hot as our previous visit but just as dusty; the main difference was that we weren’t being bombed and were sleeping in tents.

A marked- improvement. After a while the complete compliment of rude and licentious were drawn up to be addressed by our Commanding Officer. This caused a certain trepidation as it wasn’t a normal event.

Our fears were confirmed when he addressed us as ‘gentlemen’. I think I have mentioned previously the use of this title usually implies that something nasty is about to hit the fan. It did. “Gentlemen”, he said, “we have had the honour” (another word of dubious character) “to have been formed into one of the first, if not the first, airborne field ambulance”.

After a stunned silence lasting nearly a second an enormous babble broke our and it was some time before the CO could add any details. After the sergeant major had shouted “silence in the ranks” a great many times the CO was able to add the details these were that we would be doing the same job as we had all along — the only difference being that instead of travelling to our destination in a lorry, we would go by glider.

That seemed a bit weak to me because the supreme advantage of a lorry over anything airborne was that it could change direction if it seemed sensible to do so. However, there wasn’t much option.

We were now l33rd Airborne’ Field Ambulance and were gradually getting used to the idea and even making jokes about who would act as air hostess and that sort of thing. The immediate difference was that we spent much of every day getting fit for the job.

Nearby there was a purpose built assault course with various obstacles — the eight foot wall, the ten foot wall, the water jump and various other bright ideas; it was the sort of thing that put Prince Edward off the idea of being a marine.

The walls were probably the worst the technique here was that I, as corporal and tall as well, would go down on one knee with my back to the wall and hands, palms upwards resting on the vertical knee which then became a springboard for getting over the wall.

Another chunky bloke did the same thing and between us we had to propel the other thirty stretcher bearers over the wall. The first two chaps stayed on top of the wall and pulled the rest up and over. That done, I had to assist my mate up and then fling myself at the wall jumping as high as possible and hoping someone would grab my wrists and stop me falling back down again.

Then, of course, there was the other wall to negotiate. No wonder my knees still ache at times. The water jump was a touch stressful too. The approach was up a longish slope which culminated in a four foot drop and an eight foot square pit which should have been filled with water.

However, because we were in open desert there was no water so screwed up barbed wire was used instead. I must admit it did tend to add wings to one’s feet.

This sort of thing went on daily and then there came the medical examination — to see how fit we were. I must admit it puffed up the ego to be told you’re Al plus — fit for the paras — tough as they come.

You could almost see the red beret to get in; what they really wanted to find out was whether we wore spectacles and/or false teeth. If the landing was a bit hard and your glasses fell off and you swallowed your teeth you wouldn’t be much use on the ground.

Another realisation that was beginning to surface was the fact that one had to volunteer for this honour and exciting experience — those in command couldn’t just pack us into a glider or order us to jump out of an aeroplane.

Various bribes were suggested; such as ‘immediate promotion to staff sergeant on a salary of seventeen shillings and sixpence a day’. That was quite a lot of money at the time — but what would be the use if one wasn’t there to spend it? Besides, I was an only son and it seemed unfair to my parents to volunteer for something silly.

It was not an easy decision because we had been through quite a lot together and nobody wanted to break up the unit. However, common sense prevailed and most of us went on our different ways. Because the Medical Corps hadn’t suffered as many casualties as expected our base depot was full so we were sent in small groups all over the Middle East.

I was put in charge of about twenty chaps and sent to 63 General Hospital a few miles out of Cairo. It turned out to be a regular army hospital going back for decades. Many of the staff had been there since 1938 and the ground floor wards in the gaunt Victorian buildings had bars on the windows to keep the patients in.

This was to be our home until we were posted elsewhere. Next morning we presented ourselves and formed up outside the company office and met the sergeant major and a man with a notebook and pencil — can you imagine a world without ball point pens? First they enquired into our qualifications.

A few nursing orderlies — class 3 — that didn’t take long. Next, much to our surprise, they asked about our hobbies. As hobbies hadn’t featured in our lives for several years, that didn’t take long either, next was “what sports do you play?” This was different

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