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15 October 2014
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Wartime memories

by Hannah Tilayeff Roberts

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Hannah Tilayeff Roberts
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Hannah Tilayeff Roberts
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21 August 2003

"I am Hannah Tilayeff Roberts. When war broke out I was living in Palestine where my parents had settled after fleeing from the Bolsheviks in the USSR. I was born in Baku on the Black Sea en route to Palestine. I was at school when war broke out and I can remember us all being sent home, it was September 3 1939. In 1942 I finished school. As Palestine was under a British mandate I joined the ATS without even telling my parents. In 1942 Palestine was a very busy little country and was used as a transit route for the British, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and many others. The troops were given priority in all the public places, cinemas, theatres, buses and so on. All homes were open to the troops with a very warm welcome.

I was trained in Sarafand for three months then sent on a driver training course in Cairo, not far from the Pyramids. The Company I trained with was unique in the British Forces because a woman, Major McKenzie, was in command of a company of soldiers and ATS. We had to learn to drive in the dark, over the desert, through quicksand and sandstorms. We had to learn how to maintain and repair the vehicles. One morning we woke up to find ourselves in water - our kit bags were floating and the beds were under water. There had been torrential rain in the night. We were the first unit in the British army to be allocated rum to warm us up! Despite all the trauma we still had to get up and go on parade. No matter what, life carried on.

After passing our training we had our posting to Tel-el-Kabir which was in the desert. Some lived in huts. Four of us girls lived in a tent, we became friends and were inseparable. Three of us were called Hannah. To clear the muddle of Hannahs the fair one was called Blondie, the dark haired one was called Blackie and I was just Hannah. The fourth girl was called Liza, she was from a kibbutz (Digania B). One of the Hannahs, Blondie (Hannah Zuta), was killed in Jerusalem in the War of Independence.

Life in the desert was hard - mornings and nights were bitterly cold, the days were very hot. Often we had sandstorms when the sand penetrated everything, even our food. But we were young, full of energy and working for a cause which made it all worthwhile.

One of my jobs was to drive a breakdown lorry - if a vehicle had broken down it was my job to go and collect it, no matter where. We also moved vehicles around the country. I drove to many different places: Port Said, Port Tufic, Suez, Ismaalia, Cairo, Alexandria. We'd travel in convoys and I hated being the last in a convoy for fear of losing the others. I had no sense of orientation and even today I have the same problem. Once we were driving jeeps to Alexandria and when we got back to camp there was a letter from Montgomery (Field Marshal Montgomery who was in command of the Eighth Army, the 'Desert Rats') complimenting us on our driving. He had been driving behind us!

When driving our orders were not to stop, whatever happened. If people were trying to block the way we were told to drive over them rather than stop, for fear of ambush. Luckily I always managed to dodge people. We were very alert - every second and minute was important. The experience affected my driving so that even today I can dodge people if they step into the road."

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Your wartime memories edited and categorised

Posted on: 20 November 2003 by Helen

Dearh Hannah

Thank you for your wonderful submissions to the site, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

They have now been edited and categorised (apologies for the delay), and you will find the articles renamed 'The ATS in the Desert: Parts 1 and 2' linked from the following pages:

It will also be featured on the front page as a 'top story' in weeks to come.

Congratulations and best wishes,

Helen, WW2 Team

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