- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr Geoffrey Dent
- Location of story:
- Cairo, Alexandria, Toulon, London.
- 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
When we got on the train it was pretty crowded and one of my fellow travellers shoved his rifle under the seat to get it out of the way.
There were Arabs up and down the platform calling out ‘eggsybred’ — they were selling hardboiled eggs and pieces of crusty bread. It seemed not a bad idea especially as there had been no mention of any feeding arrangements.
So most of us bought the ‘eggsybred’. In any case it helped pass the time. When we reached Alexandria the chap retrieved his rifle from under the seat only to find it totally encrusted with egg shells; people must have been eating hard boiled eggs in that compartment and throwing the shells under the seats for weeks.
“At least” said the chap as he brushed off the worst of the mess, “I don’t have to clean the bloody thing and go on parade with it anymore.”
At several places during the journey there was a group of people and the village band playing the Egyptian national anthem.
We were given to understand that King Farouk was expected to pass by. That was possibly so but any gestures from the rude and licentious were certainly not regal.
The transit camp at Alex was absolutely seething with troops ‘waiting for the boat’. One of my new neighbours was a Sergeant Major in the Black Watch and we got to know each other quite well and spent most of the time together.
He told me that in the first attack at El Alamein he was shot in the knee. That put him out of the war for some time.
When one is totally bored it is surprising what simple things stay in the memory and I recall a day when Jock and I went into the camp chapel. It was without religious intent. It just seemed that it would be a pleasanter place to sit than the overcrowded NAAFI — as indeed it was.
There were quite a few other chaps with the same idea and after a while another fellow came in and sat down in front of a small folding harmonium — this is a strange keyboard contraption with foot pedals to pump the air that makes the noise.
We were treated to about five or ten minutes of non-stop boogie woogie and then just as suddenly he got up and walked out. He must have over done the footwork because the thing was still wheezing and sighing even after he had closed the chapel door behind him. If it hadn’t been for the noise the whole episode could well have been an odd sort of dream.
By about now we had been given a date for a boat home — some eight or ten days ahead. Not exactly speedy but another step forward, and in the right direction. We would be on our way home at last. But it was not to be.
A few days later jock and I were walking along the streets of Alexandria when I saw an officer coming towards us “we ought to salute him” I thought. I looked at Jock and he wasn’t interested in the least. He was too far away to nudge and as I didn’t want to drop him in it I didn’t salute either.
Of course, it was a trap and we were stopped. A couple of military police had been following and it was a ‘name and numbers’ job. Eventually we were called to explain our behaviour to God. This was scheduled for a couple of days after we were due to sail and so we were taken off the list.
Jock was furious: his father was the editor of a local paper up Inverness way and he was going to write several hundred words about the iniquitous way the high command had treated its gallant soldiery. I don’t know if he ever did this but I was a bit more philosophical — after all we should have saluted the bloke.
In the longer term it wasn’t a bad thing; as I watched the boat sail without us it seemed to me that it was little more than a floating cattle pen whereas a couple of days later we were put on a real classy job with four men to a cabin.
A vast improvement but the weather was awful: the sort of thing that caused the apostle Paul so much inconvenience in biblical times. We must have sailed overnight because I only remember having breakfast as this meal called for a great deal of dexterity.
Both hands were occupied with the cutlery and at the slightest lapse of concentration the plate would slide across the table. Quite a few meals shot off on to the floor.
Eventually we docked at Toulon — another spell of transit camp and then by train across France. A long and tedious journey with no memorable details — I suspect most of us dozed for much of the time.
I don’t even remember the channel crossing. Looking back I think it was with increasing trepidation that I neared home.
In October 1945 my wife sent me a letter telling me that although she didn’t wish me off the face of the earth (very generous of her) she didn’t want to see me again.
I wrote back suggesting we should talk things over. I really couldn’t imagine what was ahead for me.
In the event a bed had been set up for me in another room and after a few days I moved out and went back to my parents. I never saw her again.
She insisted there was nobody else but of course there was; I found that out later from other people.
Back to the travelogue. I presume we landed at Dover but I don’t really know. That may seem strange but, remember, throughout the war all place names had been removed so that any spy that dropped in would have difficulty finding his way about.
In any case it didn’t matter; the important thing was that we were back home. Train to London where Jock and I made our farewells. He had to get a train to Scotland to be demobbed. I was lucky I only had to get to Olympia.
This had been turned into a gigantic clothing store. ‘First the paperwork’. “That’s alright” said the officer in charge “Just sign here. Oh good, you can write. Had a bloke in earlier: “you’re on early release then?” “yes” he said “I’m a carpenter- I’m going to rebuild Britain” “Jolly good — just sign here please” “sorry” he said” I can’t read or write” . Going to rebuild Britain and can’t read or write I wonder what sort of job he’ll make of it.”
Next it was to choose a suit of clothes and a hat which were parcelled up and handed over by an ATS girl who had been specially trained to address us as ‘mister’, a nice touch — probably designed to remind us that we were civilians once again.
And so on a more familiar rail journey back to the home and family I hadn’t seen for nearly four years.
Looking back over what I have written one might think that much of the war was a fairly light hearted affair — of course it wasn’t anything of the sort.
I think it is part of our national make up to do our best to ride over the circumstances as they occur.
I was 21 when I was called up into the army and 28 when I was finally released. Those were the years I should have spent getting my feet on the ladder and my career established.
You know what really happened but I must say that my six years of service life were the finest university I could have gone to.
I learned more about my fellow creatures and my own capabilities and shortcomings than I could in a family business and the social constraints of a church youth club.
Finally, having met some of my mates who were taken prisoner in 1940 I realise how fortunate I was to have headed (blindly) in the right direction for Dunkirk.
They had to trudge halfway across Europe in the most insanitary and unpleasant conditions to Stalag VIIIB followed by several years of utter boredom.
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
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