- Contributed by
- BBC Scotland
- People in story:
- Douglas Renwick
- Location of story:
- Home and Overseas
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Nadine from the People's War team on behalf of Douglas Renwick. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Still he heard nothing of his unit. He tried to seek it out and rejoin his comrades but with no success. No one in Egypt seemed to have any record of him. Under evacuation orders, he had left all of his kit on Crete and his identity papers and pay book were lost. The hospital staff had given him a basic personal kit - shaving gear, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste from the Red Cross. He had managed to hang on to his diary and that watch but aside from a new uniform issued at Alexandria that accounted for all his possessions. He was sent between Alexandria and Cairo several times but no one knew what he should be doing and no one seemed to care. They wouldn’t give him any money, as he had no pay book. They fed him and gave him rail warrants but that was it. At Helwan a camp outside Cairo, he was finally given some back pay and he changed some drachmas he had to rupees. Then he was sent to Tel-el-Kebir. Tel-el-Kebir was a huge camp between Cairo and Alexandria. It was one of three vast camps, the others being Ta’Hag and Casasin. At that point, he wasn’t that far from the German front lines. Thankfully, the Germans could not cross the Qatara depression and would have had to come the long way round via El Alamein. There the British Army held a last line of defense. If it ever gave way, Cairo would fall.
It was at Tel-el-Kebir Dougie found out that his unit had been all but wiped out. It was no longer a functional force. Finally, a flight sergeant said, “You’re to report to Flight Lieutenant Taylor, AMES Unit 261 at Tel-el-Kebir. Tel-el-Kebir itself was huge with roads crisscrossing through the desert like strands of silk but Dougie found his new unit. Things started looking up. Conditions in the camp were pretty basic but better than those at Aden or Crete. The food was decent enough. Rations were okay. Flight Lieutenant Wilf Taylor came from an English upper class background. He was not only a gentleman but also a genial and a generous man. He knew how to get the best out of his men. He would spend his own money on treats for the lads. Books, musical instruments and from time to time, a few beers would appear in the camp. If duty was particularly onerous any day, he would encourage ‘his boys,’ “Come on lads, get this done and I’ll see that the canteen is open late.” And it was. Dougie also met a lad who was to become his next best mate, Alan Till. Frank Humphrey had been posted elsewhere and Dougie never saw him again. Tilly was a Lancastrian from Morecambe. The two tried to make themselves and the lads in their tent as comfortable as possible. “Hey, what’s this then? How come your tent has a wooden floor and a screen door?” others would ask. While they lazed around complaining of the heat, Dougie and Tilly looked for scrap and salvaged anything they could that would make life more bearable. Bits of wood, wire mesh and wire were fashioned into a screen door, which kept the insects out but allowed for some air circulation. Old doors became a wood floor, which was better than sleeping on the sand. Dougie always liked to walk. He explored the camp and the old site of the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir of 1889. He found dates and mangos growing. He shared them with Tilly and these supplemented their diet. Dougie didn’t smoke and he found that he could take his cigarette ration and trade it with the Egyptians for things like fresh eggs. He picked up enough Egyptian to be able to converse and tell Egyptians who continually pestered them to buy this and that to scram. “Imshi” was the word. The lads of the unit made their own entertainment for there was none other to be had. Football was popular but limited by the heat. Some lads were musicians and some were artists. One picked Dougie and painted his portrait on a canvas mailbag. Music and shows were popular. All chipped in for the common good. Discipline was not like that of the parade ground. Such rules as existed were only there for the smooth running of the unit and the benefit of the men. Dougie and some mates, Alan Till, Bill Wedderburn, a Londoner and Jock Watt a burly, jovial Aberdonian would go up to Cairo on their time off. Wedderburn was really tight but Jock Watt would say, “Leave him to me! “ They could stay quite cheaply at Hibbert House, a Church of Scotland hostel. Pay wasn’t great but in Egypt, a little went a long way. RAF issue shirts, shorts and trousers were of heavy cloth, too warm for the North African climate. A trip into Cairo and a little money was all that was necessary to get some better gear. Egyptian tailors could make up lightweight kit, beautifully hand-stitched, in the right colour and superbly fitted within a few hours. Cairo also offered other pleasures. There were fine restaurants, dancehalls and cinemas.
Dougie met an RAF regular who had been there for seven years. He had a small sailing boat at the Royal Alexandria Yacht Club and invited Dougie to go sailing. He soon learned how to handle a small boat or so he thought. Later on, he talked Alan Till and another lad into hiring a small sailing boat at Ishmalia. First, they nearly crashed into King Farouk’s yacht! “What are you doing? Get away you fools!” the crew yelled at them. Then they couldn’t get the boat back into the marina. Every time they tried, the wind died. The Arab who had hired out the boat was furious on the dock. It was their first and last adventure on water.
As the unit went through their practice drills and maintenance it emerged that Bill Price, who was a technical man, had come up with a great innovation. He had devised a way for radar to look four different directions simultaneously giving 360-degree coverage. Previously it had only been able to look two directions at once, 180 degrees. Soon it was announced he was to be flown back to Blighty. The unit reckoned his skills would be employed higher up among the boffins. Flight Lieutenant Taylor suggested some sort of a celebration was in order and he took Dougie along with some of the others including Alan Till up to Cairo. There Taylor had a trick up his sleeve. All he said to the lads was “Once we get in here don't say anything!” They went into the Taverne Francais and couldn’t believe their eyes. There were men dressed up as women, dancing together. They had make-up, lipstick, mascara, the lot. The lads only stayed a short time and they were glad to get out. Outside Taylor had a good laugh. “Who are they?” Dougie asked Taylor. “French officers, homosexuals” Taylor replied. “What?” said Dougie. It was the first time he had ever heard the word and he was twenty-one years old! The group went on to the classier and more conventional establishment of Groppi’s where Wilf Taylor knew the Maitre D personally. It was the top venue in Cairo for dancing and dining. It was a great celebration and worthy of Bill’s ingenuity.
Taylor was also well connected. He arranged for some nurses to come to the camp for a dance. Dougie got to know one of them, a nursing sister called Olive. They arranged a night out on the town in Cairo with another couple. That night Dougie noticed their uniforms as particularly attractive and high class. British nursing sisters wore thick, course serge. These South Africans wore nicely tailored uniforms made of fine cloth. What’s more, they even had nylons! Cairo had plenty recreation on offer. Cinemas like the Metropole showed the latest Hollywood films. They went to see ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Then the nurses, who were officers by rank, invited them to their club. Dougie paid for the gharry, (the Cairo taxi) and got detached from his pal and their dates. As he approached the club, he noticed the sign above the door, ‘Officers Only.’ Immediately, two military policemen barred the way. “Where do you think you’re going,” one growled. “In there,” Dougie replied. “Oh no you’re not,” bellowed the M.P. “Can’t you read?” pointing to the sign above the door. Dougie came back, “But I’m with the...” “Yes we’ve heard that one before, we’ve heard them all,” retorted the M.P. “Now off you go before we take down your details,” he threatened with his hand over the notebook in his breast pocket. Just at that moment, Olive came out and inquired, “What’s the trouble, Jock?” “I can’t get in,” Dougie responded in desperation. The lady officer looked at the M.P.s and quickly weighed up the situation. “That’s okay, he’s with me.” Immediately the two burly M.P.s stepped aside, snapped to attention and saluted. Dougie smiled as he walked past with Olive but he noticed the eyes of the M.P.s glowering back at him from under the low peaks of their red caps. That was a good night.
Then Taylor heard that a chef from the Dorchester Hotel in London had been conscripted and was arriving in Egypt. He arranged for him to become the cook for AMES 261 at Tel-el-Kebir. Before Christmas, Taylor and the chef went up to Cairo. There, at his own expense, he bought everything that was needed for a sumptuous Christmas dinner. He had an artist on the unit do up Christmas menus for the tables, which were decorated in festive order. The calligraphy of Les Cook impressed Dougie and that menu of Christmas 1941 would be another of the souvenirs he carried through the war.
Later on, Dougie also met up with people from home. One fellow borderer, Charlie Drummond, had played rugby for Scotland before the war. Dougie was no mean rugby player himself and soon Charlie had him in his team. They played against service XV’s, the Egyptian Universities and the like. The four games he played as a three-quarter back were as near as Dougie came to international caps. It was just like the old days playing for Gala Star and Dougie enjoyed himself hugely. He thought back to those far off days. There was nothing better than playing a rival Hawick team, winning, getting cleaned up via the big bath and celebrating with a fish supper before going on to the local dancing. Those had been happy days but now he was far from home in the midst of war. However, the war was not pressing in Egypt at that time. Rommel was struggling in North Africa due to problems with the long supply lines. British forces were not in a position to do anything yet but they were building up and gathering strength for the big push that was to come.
Dougie had made friends with another two servicemen. They would initiate some new adventures. The first was a Jewish lad from London, Dave Kirchenbaum. He was based at a low-level radar installation two miles from Dougie’s. He had studied modern languages at university and he spoke fluent German. Dougie asked if he would teach him German. He agreed. That would lead to other adventures in the world of intelligence but that would come later. The two became firm friends. “My family live in Tel Aviv, would you like to visit them with me?” he asked. Dougie said he would have to ask his commanding officer for some time off. “Never been asked that before but I don’t see why not” said Taylor. “Leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do.” The answer came back in the affirmative. The second friend was a pilot who was flying between Egypt, Palestine and Cyprus. He had always said, “If you ever fancy a flight, let me know?” Dougie inquired, “Can you take me and a friend to Palestine, I’ve got some time off?” “Sure I can,” the pilot responded. They took off from Cairo headed for Lydda airport, Tel Aviv. “Sorry about the ride the pilot said “We’re flying over the desert and reflected heat causes these up-draughts.” Sure enough, it was pretty bumpy. There was a top brass aboard and he was as sick as anything but they landed safely. This was before the foundation of the State of Israel and Palestine was not in the war-zone. Dougie spent some time with his friend’s family in Tel Aviv. His friend’s brother was a doctor in Tel Aviv and gave them a letter of introduction to one of his friends in Haifa who ran a Kibbutz. Dougie and his friend traveled up to Haifa and stayed on the Kibbutz. He was introduced to everyone. There he saw a nursery for the first time. The mothers, vibrant Jewish girls, worked in the fields. Meals were communal experiences. “See him?” he was asked. “He’s a surgeon but he’ll have to scrub tables until a post opens up for him.” In the evenings, they made their own entertainment. Many were accomplished performers - singers, dancers and musicians. The music and the dancing were exhilarating. He had a great time. Dave also took him sightseeing in Jerusalem. What an experience for a small town boy from the Scottish Borders. There was a spiritual dimension to it as well. He visited the holy sites and received his certificate of pilgrimage signed by the Archimandrites of Jerusalem, the Guardian of the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. It was dated 10th August 1942. At the foot of the little piece of paper, which would be another souvenir Dougie would carry home, it said, “We pray and beseech the Almighty and Eternal God that He will bless and save this pilgrim from all evil and danger." Looking back on all this, he would have much for which to thank God: for protection and for survival, for peace in the midst of war, for love in the midst of hate and for being part of a family again, his Jewish friend’s family. Soon after the war ended, he lost his father to cancer but just as he found a new family in South Africa, (he still wrote to the Lee’s) and in Palestine, he would also find a new family back home in Scotland. His pilot friend had arranged to pick them up at Tel Aviv and fly them back to Cairo. There it was back to normal duty but Dougie continued to work on his German. C.O. Taylor wanted his lads to exchange notes with another radar unit in the camp. That was how Dougie met Lottie Oppenheimer, a radar table girl. She was a Jewess and spoke fluent German. She helped Dougie to continue to improve his German. She also invited him to her parent's house in Haifa, a mansion on Mt Carmel but he explained that he had already taken his leave and used it to visit Palestine. Jewish personnel had volunteered for Allied service as Palestine itself was not at war.
At the camp, the troops, including Dougie, were receiving packages from home. These included some treats and some little luxuries like hand knitted socks. Those hand-knitted socks along with the letters that came with them would play a big part in his life but that was for the future. Right then there was a war on and something big was about to happen. Monty was in charge of the Eighth Army and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited the camp. In desert outfit, complete with a topi hat, he was driven around the camp in a big open car with Montgomery. The troops cheered. With his trademark cigar and V for victory sign, he boosted everyone’s morale, except for one group of army regulars. They had been returning from India after four years service when war broke out. They were held up in Egypt so had now been away from home for seven years. They returned Churchill’s V-sign as the soldier’s farewell, shouting, “What’s that another two bloody years?” The driver stepped on the accelerator and Churchill’s car sped away. That didn’t make the newsreels. In the meantime, tanks were rolling through Tel-el-Kebir twenty-four hours a day. Huge columns of trucks and guns stretched like giant snakes through the vast camp. American planes were shipped in. They came in crates and American Air Force mechanics showed their R.A.F. counterparts how they were assembled. They built them up right there on the desert sand. There was a good rapport with ‘the Yanks.’
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