- Contributed by
- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
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- Sgt Len Scott
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- 28 June 2004
A side street in Algiers, 1943
I had become friendly with an RAPC corporal before I went overseas, and had introduced him and his wife to my own wife, Minna. She invited them to 'Clear View', our Warlingham hilltop home. All went well until, as Minna wrote: 'He entered upon an indignant accusation against the indiscriminate issue of prophylactics to soldiers and sailors brought to his notice by a letter in a Catholic paper... from an equally indignant soldier serving abroad. My visitor's wife heartily concurred. He called it an insufferable interference in a man's private life, encouraging promiscuity, turning men into animals etc. Let them dare to treat him that way - he would show everybody. Of course the Catholic Church was dragged into it over and over again - and I just wanted to tell him that I thought him an intolerable, self-righteous little blighter, particularly with his wife sitting there voicing her approval, big with child.
‘They both refused to believe that enforced separation made any difference to the physical well-being of men and women. Apparently religion of the right brand - their brand - sees to all that. By heaven I could have told them a thing or two but managed to refrain. I do not wish to discuss my private life with anyone but you.' It is only fair to add that their attitudes changed after the war — and that we all became the best of friends — but at the time I shared Minna’s feelings.
'Poor chap,' I wrote, 'I can just imagine him sitting there, his fists pounding the table, his eyes gleaming. If I could write freely [all my letters were censored] I could advance a hundred practical arguments against his “spiritual” ones. He should live here for just one day. In any case his facts are wrong. For “indiscriminate” substitute "on demand".'
Military censorship apart, I could not bring myself to write about the Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen waiting outside a brothel only a few hundred yards from our office; the grunting and gasping coming from Army trucks parked in side-streets (with a pimp standing nearby); or the corrupt shoe-shine children ('You want jig-a-jig, Johnny? My sister very pretty, very clean, very cheap... twenty cigarettes!'). Nor did I quote the little couplet circulating as the battle for Tunisia reached new heights:
'Pox does more than Rommel can
To bugger Monty's battle-plan.'
We believed (without knowing any figures) that VD casualties were far from negligible, though jaundice was another common and crippling illness. An order had appeared affecting all those who chose to use brothels or obliging locals. As I recall it, it demanded that after intercourse a visit to a prophylactic station was obligatory and a certificate would be issued. Any man contracting VD who could not show a certificate would, possibly, face a similar charge as for a self-inflicted wound. Later on in the war my unit in Italy had its own 'prophylactic station' in the First Aid Room where the procedure was called 'a wash and brush-up'.
Place thousands of young men, womanless, in a strange country and home-nurtured moral attitudes usually succumb to hormonal activity. I heard that French soldiers in battle areas had access to medically supervised mobile brothels, but could never confirm this. As in my earlier article, Race Relations in Algiers, it is imperative to put in context the situation of we young Britons in 1942-45. To do so I have to use words and phrases which are now politically unacceptable.
In pre-war Britain access to condoms was difficult. Few of us dared to ask for them at a chemist's shop, where the assistant might be a woman. My hairdresser would ask 'Is there anything you need for the week-end, sir?' As for condoms in slot machines... inconceivable (sic). The contraceptive pill - like political correctness - had yet to be invented, and girls who produced ‘bastards’ were often ostracised. Abortion? Illegal, but it might be had - expensively - in some back-street room with a dodgy doctor or, more cheaply, from a woman with a knitting needle. Some families contrived to get the delinquent girl certified and sent to what we called a lunatic asylum. Years later Minna and I became visitors to such a place (by then described as a ‘mental hospital’) and discovered just such a case.
For most lads and girls sex was never simple - it was hedged about with fear, religious prohibitions, disgrace and terror of venereal disease. So 'nice girls didn't' until they grasped their marriage certificates. Divorce was frowned upon, and was difficult and expensive. There were prostitutes on our city streets, but they were liable to arrest and many were infected with V.D. Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin but in the mid-1930s it had hardly developed. I may invite ridicule when I suggest that in 1942 the majority of young unmarried soldiers were still virgin. Now, suddenly, sex was on tap for a modest sum in francs, and the prophylactic stations - rightly or wrongly - lulled the fear of disease. Algiers was, for many, an Aladdin's cave of once-forbidden delights.
An NCO I knew made no secret of his brothel-visits and it was he who proposed a communal visit to 'The Sphinx' where 'the girls would give us "an exhibition" which will make your toes curl.' We looked at each other, all tempted by something unimaginable in the Britain we knew. 'The madam won't fix it for less than a dozen of us, but I've already got six R.E.s who want to come. So how about it?' I had always despised what is now called peer pressure, but this time I went with the stream, propelled also by intense curiosity.
'The Sphinx', situated in a side-street, was vaguely Moorish in character. There was a large salon furnished with divans and a scatter of chairs. On right and left stairs led up to a balcony, at the rear of which were half-a-dozen doors. A few girls were on the balcony - some naked, some wearing short chemises. I had expected the 'madam' to be a tough old crone. She was young and pretty. After collecting her fees she clapped her hands, and half a dozen girls descended the stairs in a hip-swinging, provocative manner. Four, at least, were European, the others doubtful - brown-skinned, dark-eyed. All were naked.
I leave the scene which followed to the imagination. Enough to say that whatever could be done by them (with the aid of 'appliances') as a duet, trio or sextet was done - largely obscene or grotesque but occasionally unintentionally comic. After about fifteen minutes ‘madam' suggested that we might like to take on one or more of the girls and give 'a real 'exhibition'. There were no takers.
Little was said as we returned. I discovered something about myself: it is possible to be excited and disgusted at one and the same time, and there can be a delight in disgust. Later, when recalling the scene, I found that disgust prevailed. One of the others was a timid little fellow who seemed even more timid after this experience. He began shouting in his sleep and exhibiting other nervous symptoms. Matters grew worse; and he was removed to hospital for observation. In a month or two he was in what we called the 'bomb-happy' ward and was sent home as a psychiatric case.
Another of us, a bright and intelligent man, was invited to a party close by AFHQ (the Hotel St. George). There were lots of American servicewomen, the food good and the drinks plentiful. He enjoyed himself hugely. I knew him as a quiet young man who never used foul language. He was even more quiet when he returned, and not until a day or two later did he confide what had happened. 'I danced several times with this American girl and then we went out into the gardens. She was good-looking and I wanted to kiss her, you know, have a bit of a cuddle. So I did. She looked at me in a funny way and I thought she was angry. Then she said, "Have ya gotta rubber?" I didn't know what to say, where to look, mumbled something. Then she just laughed and walked away.'
Apart from brothels there were hotels where a tip, a nod and a wink to the barman would elicit the number of a certain room where satisfaction awaited the client. Of a different class was the Hotel Aletti, down by the sea front. This elegant establishment - reserved for officers of field rank (majors and above) - was reputed to provide ladies of equal elegance. It was further reported that some of these ladies, if reasonably thrifty, would be able to buy hotels of their own after the war.
There was another curious aspect to the sexual scene in Algiers. At a certain hour a cluster of respectable-appearing civilians would be waiting outside our local brothel. Some were wheeling perambulators. When the girls appeared they embraced their men and kissed their babies. All walked away together. Occasionally, on a Sunday, I had seen some of these girls emerging from the cathedral, clasping their prayer books, their heads covered with lace mantillas.
I had been brought up in the Catholic faith and knew the serious sins (known as 'mortal') which, unless repented and confessed, merited damnation and a permanent residence in Hell. This knowledge had been impressed upon me by constant reiteration, and further impressed upon my palms and posterior with a cane. Fornication was one such sin, and missing Sunday Mass another. Taking Holy Communion while in a state of 'mortal' sin aggravated the offence. Problem. How could the girls - after servicing the Allies all week - go to confession on Saturday, participate in the Mass on Sunday and resume fornication on Monday? Perhaps my one-time War Office Catholic friend knew the answer. I did not. After the war Minna and I saw a French film, ‘Le Corbeau’, (made, oddly enough, in 1943). There was one scene which particularly amused us. One character, an atheist anti-clerical, was spotted emerging from Sunday Mass and was challenged by a friend. 'Well,' said he with a grin, 'I don't expect my house to burn down, but I take out fire insurance.' So how do I describe myself in 2004? Like Graham Greene, I am 'a sort of Catholic.'
Many of the soldiers I knew never frequented brothels but yearned for congenial - not necessarily sexual - feminine company among respectable French girls. I saw them sauntering along the Rue Michelet, impeccably turned out - trousers with knife-edge creases, gaiters blanco-ed, cap-badges gleaming. I had also seen Italian prisoners-of-war employed on various menial jobs. Their P.O.W. status was shown by a circle of contrasting colour sewn upon the backs of their often dilapidated uniforms. They were young, often darkly handsome with black curling hair, moving with animal grace and arrogant confidence. 'I can't bloody understand it,' said a soldier to me, 'The girls go with those scruffy Eyeties with the backsides hanging out of their trousers.' And so it often was... Latins attracted by Latins perhaps.
I suspect that most of we soldiers remained relatively chaste, with an occasional lapse. 'I have been faithful to you, Cynara, after my fashion' was the favourite quote of a sergeant I knew. Me? Once, in a barman-friendly hotel. A brief encounter. All went normally until the air-raid siren sounded. A classic case of coitus interruptus. Alcohol was the popular relief and with local wine at the equivalent of 5p the litre, the night-time streets of Algiers stank of urine. The Military Police cruised around in jeeps and trucks breaking up brawls and collecting supine bodies. Other remedies? Masturbation, naturally - but in all my five years of service I heard of only one court-martial for sodomy. I might have got relief in my love-letters to Minna, but they could be read by the Army censor. Impossible. To write such a letter would be like learning to dance with two left feet.
Today there is a torrent of pictures and reports from Iraq, but I have yet to discover anything which examines this side of a soldier’s life. Are today’s young men so different from those I knew? Is censorship still a problem? Is this too sensitive a subject to be tolerated by those ‘at home’? Or do today’s soldiers relieve their frustration and loneliness on their mobile telephones?
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