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- 10 May 2005
.Chapter 8 ‘Egypt’ and ‘Libya’
The Royal Artillery Base Depot was at a large encampment called Almaza near to Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo. It was no more than a transit camp where we troops just arrived in the Middle East awaited posting to a unit and took the opportunity to look around Cairo and the neighbouring district. Thus I was able to lunch at Shepherds Hotel, then quite famous but later to be burnt to the ground and never rebuilt. I also visited the Great Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx and like countless tourists before me climbed a short way up the largest pyramid and marvelled at how on earth it was built.
Cairo at that time was awash with troops of the Allied Forces; British, South African, Australian, and New Zealand in the main, as well as other more minor contingents. All of them at some time or another beat up the centre of the city and stories abounded of the Australians overturning a tram and the New Zealanders throwing a piano from a third floor window. Troops from Heliopolis caught what was known as the ‘Brown Tram’ into the centre of the city and I once clicked for the duty of riding the tram backwards and forwards late at night because the soldiers had been refusing to pay a fare saying to the conductor that “Churchill will pay”. All it needed was an officer to follow the conductor through the tram and the boys paid up like lambs.
I was only at Almaza for a couple of weeks before being posted to a Heavy Anti Aircraft battery that was then defending an RAF forward landing ground at Gambut about thirty miles east of Tobruk. This was my first posting to a unit of the 8th Army and I was to remain with them for more than a year until we were well up the Italian mainland. We saw some action at Gambut, mainly firing at enemy fighter planes attacking the airfield; difficult targets as they came and went so quickly that the engagement was over in minutes and we didn’t stand much chance of hitting one but liked to think that at least we provided a deterrent. I shan’t easily forget the day when four of our aircraft, Hurricanes I think, were coming into land when a squadron of enemy fighters, Messerschmitt 109s they most certainly were, came diving out of the sun and before you could say knife our aircraft became a heap of twisted metal on the ground.
The Western Desert (the western part of Egypt) and the desert of Cyrenaica (then the eastern part of Libya) are not lands of soaring sand dunes as most of us imagine deserts to be and which is much truer as a description of the Sahara Desert. The bit we knew was certainly arid and nothing whatsoever grew there other than the odd patch of camel thorn, but in the main it was flat, and for the most part stony, ground with occasional patches of sand which were extremely treacherous to the drivers of motor vehicles. Hit a patch of sand and you could be sure of spending the next hour or so digging the vehicle out. Sand storms did occur and I was unfortunate enough to be caught in one once. I and a driver, in a small covered truck, had gone back to the base area to visit the N.A.A.F.I (the Navy, Army, Air force, Institute that provided canteens and shops, which sold ‘goodies’ throughout the armed services) to get our monthly ration of beer, cigarettes and other nice things, when quite suddenly the sky darkened to a deep orange colour. The wind got up and was shortly a howling gale whipping up the sand so that it was impossible to see more than a few yards. The driving sand stung the face and one peered through slitted eyelids until one could bury ones face somewhere to escape the storm. My driver and I did just that by burying our heads under the canvas at the tail of the truck and we raided the rations for a tin of pineapple chunks which we ate with relish as if the juice was the very nectar of the gods.
It was not at all unusual for vehicles to break down as the result of sand and dust choking the air filter and the carburettor. On one such occasion I was travelling in the front of a three ton lorry with the driver and his mate when we came to a grinding halt. The mate clambered down, lifted the bonnet, poked around in the engine for a few minutes and then came up with what must surely be the ultimate use of the ‘f’ word. “Bert” he announced, “The f*****g f****r’s f****d”. That really does say it all doesn’t it; adjective, noun, verb!
The Eighth Army’s various battles against Rommel’s Afrika Corps were fought up and down a coastal strip of fairly flat terrain and the main reason for this was that the land to the south was soft sand and practically impassable for tanks and heavy vehicles. I think the only unit that safely negotiated this inhospitable land was the ‘Long Range Desert Group’ that was equipped with American Bantam Jeeps which had four wheel drive and low reduction gears. This famous unit, the forerunner of the SAS (Special Air Service), penetrated deep behind enemy lines creating mayhem by blowing up fuel and ammunition dumps and destroying aircraft on the ground. This reminds me that there was another unit lead by a man called Popski who was either a Pole or a White Russian. I saw some of his men once and a right lot of cut throats they looked. His unit was known as ‘Popski’s Private Army’ and they too operated behind the German line both in North Africa and later in Western Europe.
The other telling factor that determined the path of a battle was that there was just one tarmac road along the coast and this had to be used to supply the forward troops of either army with fuel, ammunition and other supplies. It was when this ‘line of communication’ got over extended that either army’s advance came to a grinding halt and went into reverse and this happened to both armies several times before the final advance of the Eighth Army from El Alamein to Tunis. Montgomery made sure that he would have the equipment and sufficient supplies to sustain the distance before he launched the final battle.
There was one other ‘road’ capable of use by heavy vehicles which ran some five miles south of the coast road and which was in fact an old, unmetalled, camel track called the ‘Trig Capuzzo’ and which ran from south of Tobruk to the Egyptian border. More of this later.
Our Troop of four guns had four officers. The Troop Commander was a Captain named Bob Bonner who I met by chance when I came to Oxford in 1966. He was a market gardener and sold his produce in that large fruit and vegetable stall that spreads across the Market Street end of the covered market. Then there were two other subalterns besides me: one, Spencer Forbes, very much a Mayfairite and a product of Stowe School, and the other Ian Harvey who came from Harrogate and before the war worked for his father who kept what was then known as a haberdasher’s and draper’s shop in the town. I remember him best for his ownership of a hand operated dry shaver which worked by squeezing a lever at its side. He used it in bed every morning much to our annoyance and with apparently limited results.
The four of us lived in a tent known as a ‘hundred and eighty pounder’. Presumably that is what it weighed although I never tested it. It was a ridge pole tent measuring about twelve feet by eight feet and held up by three poles, one at each end and one in the middle. There was just enough room for four camp beds, two at each side and a six foot army table in the middle. I dwell on this because it was were we slept ate, wrote letters and played cards for much of the time I was with the Battery and as you can imagine it was a pretty cheek by jowl existence.
Water! No one can write about a sojourn in the desert without specific reference to this precious commodity. When we turn on a tap to run a bath, to wash the car, or to water the garden, it may fleetingly occur to those of us who pay the household bills that this is adding a few more hundred gallons to the next account, but when you are rationed to one gallon per man per day then this an entirely different matter. That was our ration; for all purposes and six pints of it went straight to the cookhouse. It is true that two pints of this was later dispensed to us in the form of two large enamel mugs of tea, but nevertheless the personal ration was a daily two pints received by the filling of our water bottles each evening. This was for all purposes, drinking, washing, shaving and washing clothes. We four officers used to contribute a cupful each morning into a communal wash basin, in which we would wash and shave in turn and then our batmen would sieve the remains through a piece of cloth and keep it for washing clothes. When you have to decide whether to have a drink of water in the evening or save it until the heat of the following day, it really does concentrate the mind. Water holes in the desert were strictly controlled and guarded by the Military Police, but I remember once we came across one before the authorities came on the scene and this was indeed a blissful occasion as we all drank our fill and even poured some of the lovely stuff over our heads. There was another such occasion when the water truck got trapped in soft sand and we had to empty it before we could move on. Of course we were never that far from the sea and from time to time had the opportunity to get to the beach for a swim, which apart from being very pleasant was probably good for our personal hygiene.
Reference above to ‘a batman’ requires the explanation that this refers to an officer’s servant. It wasn’t regarded as a bad job as the holder was excused other duties except in emergencies and he did get paid a small sum by his officer(s) in addition to his army pay. In the desert I shared one with the two other subalterns and Bob Bonner had one to himself. Ours was named Granville and in civilian life he had been personal valet to a bishop. A small man he had a somewhat lugubrious look and seemed to take great pleasure on those mornings when he was able to wake us with the greeting “Good morning Sir and its raining.” And when we were in Italy it certainly did rain. I had another batman in Italy whose name was Pinchin and his nickname was, inevitably of course, ‘Snatcher’. I well remember that towards the end of the War we occupied a house in a small town and there was, unusually, a supply of electricity. The snag was that only half the rooms had bulbs and Snatcher was caught by one of my brother officers standing on a chair in his room to remove the bulb as my room was one of those without such luxury. “Ah! Snatching eh Pinchin” was the officer’s comment. Another time we occupied a farmhouse and Pinchin had a pair of really nice brown boots that another officer had left behind when he was posted. As he had left owing several weeks ‘wages’ Pinchin did not feel disposed to attempt to get the boots to him. Rather, he offered them to the farmer on condition that he, Pinchin, could sleep with the farmer’s wife. In the morning he gave the farmer one boot and said he could have the other the next day!
Food is always a subject of some interest. We never had fresh meat in the desert of course because we had no means of keeping it without refrigeration. Corned beef, or bully beef as we called it, was the staple diet together with canned meat and vegetable, known as ‘M & V’: we were convinced that some of it was a relict of the First World War. The bully beef was alright cold, in fact I quite liked it, but the cooks were in the habit of making it into a stew and then the stringy meat descended to the bottom of the cooking utensil and became a really unappetising mess. Vegetables were never fresh; powdered potatoes, dried cabbage that came in slabs looking rather like cow cake and reconstituted into a greenish brown mess, dried onions and of course dried peas which often appeared as an accompaniment to the bully stew; cooked in the stew that is! Rice was a frequent sweet: sugared of course, but cooked in water without milk and with a handful of currants for good measure which came looking rather like dead flies. For breakfast we often had dried egg and tinned bacon, which wasn’t at all bad but we also “enjoyed” canned ‘soya links’ which were apologies for sausages being made from flavoured soya flour, square in section and skinless so that when the cooks had finished with them they usually appeared as charred strips. We had no bread but square biscuits which again were quite palatable but not much improved by spreading them with ‘oleo margarine’: which came in large round tins and was supposed to be designed for use in hot climates. More often than not in our experience this stuff could be poured from the tin rather than spread, though it was a bit better in the cool of the evening. With the biscuits came a plentiful supply of nourishing cheese and for sweeteners one could have Palestinian fig jam which was certainly sweet, but unappetisingly jet black in appearance. Much better was quince jelly which was really fruity and of pleasing appearance.
Hardly a matter of special interest but none the less important to us at the time was sanitation. Never a popular job but someone had to be made responsible for providing latrines at each of our gunsites and this poor individual was inevitably known as the ‘shit house Walla’. To those of us that operated near to an airfield the ‘loo’ was usually an empty forty gallon drum of aviation spirit with hole cut in the top and the sharp edges carefully bent inwards. This receptacle was buried in the sand to a convenient depth and more often than not left without a canvas screen modestly surrounding it. This didn’t really matter in a totally male community, but we did create one gunsite in the dark and found out in the morning that the loo had been sited right besides crossed tracks so that it was not uncommon to be sitting there in quiet contemplation and have a vehicle draw up alongside and some stranger to the locality enquire where such and such a unit was to be found. One of our numbers was sitting there one morning when a staff car pulled up, the passenger’s window wound down and a voice asked for directions. Imagine his horror when he realised that the voice was that of a woman! She turned out to be a nurse belonging to a field ambulance unit that was run by a lady who was hell bent on getting her unit as near to the front line as she could. The nurse wasn’t a bit fazed.
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