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15 October 2014
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Else happened and I was in uniform. (Part 8)

by gloinf

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr Geoffrey Dent
Location of story: 
Cairo, North Africa, Tel El Kebia, Mount Carmel, Haifa, Egypt
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 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.

Told to present ourselves at the British Embassy. There the Ambassador’s wife, Lady Killeam, gave us a list of all the hospital and other medical establishments in the Cairo area with details of how many Christmas trees to deliver to each.

We collected the trees from a nursery somewhere and because it was raining heavily we finished up with a truck load of dripping foliage. It was a fairly simple job to do as the driver knew where all these places were.

About mid-day came the moment I had been looking forward to. We drove in through the gates of 63rd general and stopped outside the QM store where I used to work.

“Hello Lofty” said the QM “What are you doing here?” I managed to keep a straight face and said “I’m delivering Christmas trees”. “You’re f what?” was his predictable response.

I explained that the mosquito trade had dried and I was at 15th Scottish doing odd jobs as they came along. “Would you like to come back here?” Of course I would! I had always found my job at 63rd very satisfactory and a few days later I was a tinsmith again among familiar friends and colleagues — Justin time for a very dreary Christmas.

All I remember is sitting in the ‘corporal’s mess’ with four or five others; we were gathered round a small fireplace containing some smouldering cattle cake (which also doubled as fuel) and after a while one of the others said “sod this and ripping off the notice board from the wall broke it into grate-sized pieces and we were able to enjoy a merry blaze from, probably, the only recorded yule notice board.

At 63rd 1944 was very similar to 1943. The same chaps were doing the same jobs; the same sporting activities were taking place and the same old coach turned up on Tuesday afternoons with an assortment of pregnant WRENS, WAAFS and ATS girls for an ante-natal clinic.

The chaps used to refer to it as the ‘Blunder Bus’. I’m not too sure about the blunder — it was a certain way of being sent back home.

The same 22 South African female ambulance drivers were still doing a useful job around Cairo. We got to know some of them quite well as on a regular basis a hospital train crossed the whole of North Africa collecting casualties on the way.

We would be told to expect X number of stretcher cases and X number of walking wounded. Enough of these ambulances were sent to accommodate this lot and I would take a stretcher bearing gang to do the loading.

We would get information that the train had passed through Benha which was forty minutes from Cairo and we would set off to meet it. There must have been as certain amount of misinformation as we invariably had to wait for ages before the thing arrived.

On the credit side the train appeared to have miraculous powers and any stretcher case with more than one leg achieved the status of ‘walking wounded’ during the journey.

It was during the hours of waiting that we got to know some of these ambulance girls and one of them — Eileen Andrews — invited me to the South African forces club in Cairo to meet her brother and his friends who had just arrived from Orange Free State.

My main recollection of the club, which was in a very opulent building, was a polished mahogany bench with a strange flushing system let into it beside the user and a huge toilet bowl with very ornate blue under glaze decoration that proudly claimed to be ‘the closet of the century’ which probably dates the contrivance to the early 1900s.

The brother and his friend were somewhat alarming as they had presumably celebrated their safe arrival in Egypt and spent much of their time catching ‘Noo Noos’, imaginary creatures which lurked in strange places. “There’s another” one of them would cry out and climb half way up a lamp post.

It was quite a relief to get back home without anyone being arrested.
One interesting event occurred some time along the way. The QM suggested we clear out a certain cupboard and give ourselves a bit more storage space.

Among the items we unearthed was a large cardboard box filled with silver toast racks. “We’ll have them down the sergeant’s mess” said the QM. Next day he told me he had said to the cook “What do you make of the toast racks, cook?” presumably seeking a word of appreciation.

In reply he got “Toast racks” (snort) “got through twice as much bread as usual — even that bugger with no teeth had two slices!”

Next major event was a bit of a shock. My name appeared in orders as promoted to Lance Sergeant. Having been a Corporal for over four years a change in status had never been in my thoughts. The rise in rank made no difference to my pay or the job I was doing; however, it did mean that I took my meals in the Sergeant’s mess where I got a brief insight into the mess traditions and social customs of the regular army.

Soon afterwards came the real thing — promotion to full Sergeant. Army custom was that seniors were not promoted from within their own company. Presumably the thinking was that it was not easy to be one of the chaps one day and a senior NCO and stern disciplinarian the next.

I was sorry to be leaving 63rd as it was on the outskirts of Cairo and it was quite easy to get into town for the evening. There was a quite remarkable tram that ran from nearby Heliopolis; it would speed across the desert at about fifty or sixty mph and on the outskirts of town would dive into a tunnel and become an underground train to the town centre.

Orders stated that I was to be posted to 27th General Hospital which turned out to be at Tel El Kebia — a sandy place up Suez way.

Much to my amazement and delight Les Montagu from 133 days was waiting at the gate to greet me. I was also pleased to learn that Gordon Pudney was Regimental Sergeant Major — also from 133 days.

I couldn’t have had a better introduction. At first I was sent to a small studio to run the hospital radio. This involved relaying news programmes put out by British Forces Radio on Egyptian state broadcasting.

This meant that if I got the timing wrong the whole hospital was flooded out with Arabic music — not what was required. There was a collection of records — 78s of course — for making up programmes.

There were quite a few recordings of BBC programmes mostly Tommy (“It’s that man again”) Handley and the like. Sometimes we would arrange live quizzes between departments or wards.

I was fully occupied running and timing the programmes throughout the day and then spend the evening relaying them to the wards. This put me as a social disadvantage in that just at the time my fellow sergeants were relaxing over their evening meal and engaging in various social activities, I had to retreat to the broadcasting room and not get back to the mess much before bed time.

The downside of the job was that the wires connecting the speakers between the wards were just crude wire with no insulation. In windy weather they had a tendency to wrap round each other and prevent the relay working I would then have to put a ladder up against the outside of the ward and shake the wires until they separated.

It was all a bit crude but it broke the monotony for the patients. I was still doing this job at Christmas 1944 and I well remember a couple of days before Christmas there was an almighty bang and some black smoke — the radio had blown up.

I though that this sort of thing only happened in Disney cartoons. Obviously that was not the case. Jennie Sinclair of the Red Cross bustled around and organised a replacement in time for Christmas.

Eventually, some time later — we’re in 1945 by now — I was put in charge of the clothing store. I was back quarter mastering again and felt more at home.

One advantage of 27th General was that for a modest whip round we could use an army truck to take us to the Great Bitter Lake (part of the Suez Canal) to bathe for a couple of hours.

I’m afraid, for me, a bathe has never been the same since. The invigorating waters of the south coast of England didn’t have the same relaxing effect as basking on the edge of the lake.

27th general was also equipped with a cinema which provided nightly entertainment. On one occasion the Commanding Officer chose to be entertained and when the film ended and the recording of the national anthem started he was horrified to see most of his senior NCOs leap out of the windows and rush off.

He later expressed his displeasure but I’m sure he understood that no disrespect was intended towards our gracious majesty.

It was just that we only had five minutes before the Sergeant’s Mess bar closed.

When one day is remarkably similar to the days preceding and following, the memory has no landmarks to make sense of the time scale of events. Also there weren’t many events. However, I did have one break from routine when I was sent to Mount Carmel University.

This was a training college run by the army education corps. It was situated on Mount Carmel just back of Haifa. I haven’t mentioned the progress of the war in all this as it is not intended to be a history but since my brief spell with the 8th army in 1942 we had seen the successful conclusion of the campaign in North Africa followed by the invasions of Sicily and Italy and then the momentous events of D Day and the subsequent surrender of Germany on May 8 1945.

It now became evident that our thoughts could turn to getting back home and rebuilding Britain — and our own lives. This is what Mount Cannel was all about.

VE DAY (Victory in Europe) had been celebrated and was indeed a rather important step in the right direction but to us the war wouldn’t be over until Japan had been sorted out — not a pleasant prospect but surely just a matter of time.

Thus it was that our minds were being turned to consider life post war. After our stay at Mount Cannel — about a couple of weeks, I think — we would go back to our units and stimulate a bit of discussion on post war ideals.

In actual fact this was easier said than done, especially as the discussions were always scheduled for after lunch while the heat of the mid-day sun was having an adverse effect on the attention span of those taking part. In fact, I think that, privately, the chaps all took the view that ‘just get us home and we’ll soon sort it out’. Anyway, we did our best.

On the first evening at Cannel I went with another chap to look at Haifa and have a meal together. We found a pleasant little restaurant on an upper floor of a building on the main road. We took a table in the window and it was quite relaxing with a glass of wine watching the wide variety of traffic down below. We also had a dress circle’s eye view of the window opposite.

The room appeared to be a dental surgery and one was regularly treated to a view of the dentist doing dreadful things. It wasn’t so relaxing as the traffic but held an awful fascination. I don’t remember the actual meal.

The stay at Carmel included trips out: one was to a ‘Kibbutz’ — a pure form of communism — where everybody worked for the good of the community and the whole community enjoyed the proceeds.

The place was virtually a jam factory which provided the income for the good of all. No wages were paid and all things were shared. We came away with the feeling that some were less deservedly equal than others.

By September, Japan was out of the war and there was real reason to think we would be on our way home fairly soon.

Unlike VE Day, we were pretty well equipped by the time VJ Day came along. Large quantities of booze had been stockpiled in anticipation and someone organise a dance. This was achieved by spreading tarpaulins on the football pitch.

As the pitch consisted entirely of rolled sand it wasn’t long before the tarpaulins were nicked up in to a series of ridges and furrows that were not in the least bit suitable for ballroom dancing. That didn’t matter a bit — such a state of euphoria had developed that crawling about among fallen bodies seemed a perfectly reasonable activity at the time.

One of my memories is of the orthopaedic patients in their wheelchairs. I don’t suppose they had seen a bottle of beer for months and now they were making amends.

I don’t remember any upsets or disasters but a wheelchair with a very merry driver careering about the place is not to be ignored.

I think general fatigue eventually brought the event to a close and next day we were down to the stern business of preparing for demob and getting back home. This was organised by the war office on a calculation based on age and service.

I never knew the mathematical details but it meant that the key men were sent home first. Thus it was not long before I had got to the top of the promotional ladder with the rank of Quartermaster Sergeant (Warrant Officer Two) with responsibility for all the non- medical equipment in the hospital.

I never had much of a problem keeping my books straight but I did hear of a chap in my position who took his pending tray out into the desert and burnt the contents in case he was made to stay until the problems had been sorted out.

When my demob group was getting close a replacement had to be found so the Sergeant Major sent a Lance Corporal clerk from the company office. After three or four days he still hadn’t grasped the difference between ‘goods inward’ and ‘goods outward’.

As this is a basic essential when dealing with stock control I had to have him taken away again. In the end my mate, Ken Hague, took over from me. I think it was easier to find another pharmacist who could take over from Ken so Ken, who had worked parallel with me on the medical equipment, had to transfer his expertise with urine testing glasses and that sort of thing to brooms, blankets and bed pans.

Anyway, that’s how it worked and I was on my way home.
This age and service business meant that some of the groups were too big to be accommodated all at the same time so the group was sub-divided into ‘flights’ of a few men each and left at four day intervals.

Socially speaking this was quite hard work as we would have a farewell binge for the whole group and then every fourth night stay up till 3 or 3.3Oam to ‘see off each flight. I think I was in group 28—one of a string of large groups.

Group 27 went off in seven or eight flights the whole process seemed to take for ever. At last it was my turn for the farewells and address swapping.

The route home was called ‘Medloc’ which was a silly way of saying that we would cross the Med by boat and then cross France by train.

Anyway it was better than spending three months going back round Africa again.

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