- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Victor John Flack. Warrant Officer Thompson; Sergeant Every; Winston Churchill
- Location of story:
- Alexandria, Cairo - Egypt
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 December 2005
Instalment 5 RAF — Egypt to 1945
We were taken to Alexandria railway station to board the train for Cairo. Those trains seemed large and airy, compared with our English ones, possibly because there was no bug harbouring upholstery. We were quite warm, carrying all our kit, by the time we got on the train, but once the train was under way, the temperature dropped to a pleasant level.
From the station we were taken south 14 miles to 111 maintenance unit at Tura. This unit, previously located elsewhere as part of 101 M.U, had been the one major unit of its kind in Egypt in 1941, and as such, had been a particular target for German bombing. The caves in the Mokattam hills at Tura, had been decided upon as a suitable alternative site, being almost bomb proof. The caves were formed when limestone was quarried for the casing stones for the pyramids, across the Nile.
These caves were now used for storage, engine and airscrew repair shops, and, as I was to discover on a few months time, a small hospital. We lived in tents at the foot of the hills, and nearby were the engine test benches, the noise being baffled from the tents by sand dunes.
Also in the area was a NAAFI (Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute), where tea and snacks were available, oh yes, and beer too. We soon got into the habit of banging our chair on the ground before we sat down, to dislodge any bugs lurking in the joints. The NAAFI was also where ENSA could put on a show, some of these were good, but occasionally an artiste was bad enough to be booed off.
I was assigned to a group responsible for collecting aero engines from the test benches, using a “Clark tractor and trailer, unloading them in a cave, using a mobile “Coles” crane, and doing several jobs on them. After running for hours on the test bench, valve clearances needed to be re-set, and nuts had to be wire locked. After treatment, they had to be secured in boxes, ready for despatch to an airfield. The engines were mainly Allison, Pratt and Witney, and Rolls Royce “Merlin”, some of which were made in America by Packard, under licence to Rolls Royce.
Our group was headed by Sergeant Every, and above him a colourful, sometimes fearful, warrant officer called Thompson.
Local labour was used for some of the work, always under RAF supervision, which meant we had to learn a few Arabic words, generally supplemented by sign language. Their religion occasionally caused them to disappear outside, to use their prayer mats, facing Mecca.
So that Tuesday evening, off I went to see if Ern, my brother, was still in Cairo. He was, and over several cups of tea we exchanged news. We chatted for hours until it was time for me to catch a train to get me back to camp.
His unit moved on the next day, so I was lucky to have seen him so soon after arriving in the area. Ern’s army career had begun in the Royal Armoured Corp, and during his time abroad, his address changed to Royal Tank Regiment and then Special Air Service, and finally to M Squadron, Special Boat Service. I wish now, that I had asked him about his activities at the time, he must have had some interesting experiences. I do remember that during one of his trips to my vicinity, one of his older mates who was with us, told me, while Ern was at the counter getting our teas, that Flacky was real morale booster in his group-made me feel quite proud of him.
Because the battle for Egypt was in full swing, and engines were in constant demand, we were kept busy in the cave, often working late into the evening; W.O. Thompson was not going to allow his department to be the cause of delay. He oozed authority. One of his jobs was to censor our letters, so when I re-mustered from AC1 Flight Mechanic, to the higher grade of Fitter 2E, and he passed me as AC2, my pay would go up, but my rank as AC2 would appear to be lower than my former rank of AC1 Flight Mechanic. When I wrote home explaining the position, fearful that my folks would think I had been demoted from AC1 to AC2, he would have read this, being a censor. I was sent for! Petrified I wobbled my way to his office. He gave me short technical test, and made me AC1 Fitter 2E. Phew — what a relief that was.
W.O. Thompson didn’t live long after that. During November, soon after we started work in the morning, Sergeant Every rode into the cave on a service motor-cycle, he was dressed in his best blue uniform. We were gathered round to hear what he had to say, in essence this was “W.O. Thompson died last night, he is to be buried today, and I am going to the funeral”. I must admit to mixed feelings, regret at the loss of a real leader, we all learned a lot from him, he was never unfair — and then an inexcusable feeling of relief, we were free from the rod of iron.
During October, an appeal was made for ground-crew to volunteer to join a group known as RAF Servicing Commando, the job being to re-fuel and service aircraft, landing close to the front line, and sometimes beyond it, we were told. I volunteered along with several others. We were instructed to report to the M.I. room for a yellow fever jab, which we had, then waited for the next instruction. We were told that we couldn’t be spared, so we had to return to our toil in the cave.
Another October event was a visit to 111MU by Winston Churchill. During his visit to Egypt, he had decided to replace the existing army commanders, with Alexander and Montgomery, and also took the opportunity to see the unique cave workshops. His motorcade paused in our cave while he spoke a few words to the 11 of us (plus our Egyptian helpers). As the cars set off again, there was enthusiastic cheering, much of it from our helpers who had not understood a word he said.
Churchill’s visit brought rapid results. On October 24th, at El Alamein , the final battle for Egypt began which ended with the rout of the enemy forces. Apparently the Germans had been almost ready to take Cairo, the Nile valley and most importantly, me as well! I was not aware of that at the time. My brother Ern was at Alamein, and although he was in an armoured brigade, at that time, he may not have had the benefit of armour, as dummy tanks were included in the advance.
The front line moved on from Egypt, but there was not sign of us packing our bags and moving on after it, in fact we stayed where we were until 1945. Our efforts previously directed to supplying the Desert Air Force was still needed by squadrons further a field. We just had to get on with our unromantic efforts, suffering the occasional gas drill, doing the periodic guard duty, and taking our turn at getting up early to get the diesel electric plant going for the electrical supply. This took two of us, one mechanical person, for example me, and one electrical person. No self starter, - just two man power. The two of us had to run a handle connected to a heavy flywheel. It took all our effort just to get started, once moving, the idea was to build up the revs per minute of this mighty flywheel until it had reached a respectable speed, then one of us (me, if the other fellow was strong enough) had to leave the handle to the other fellow to keep the speed up, and move a lever to engage full compression, which hopefully would start the whole contraption chugging away and supplying light to the cookhouse, NAAFI, toilet block plus numerous illegally wired up tents housing our mates.
To keep in touch with the outside world we had the radio. We were not supposed to have a radio, but bearing in mind that in the forces were people from all walks of life, clerks, shopkeepers, journalists, poachers, burglars, and people who could liberate equipment and construct radios, it was inevitable that the demand would be met. The end product was a master set in our tent; the stations could be changed by swapping coils around. The speakers were earphones, modified by soldering a pin onto the diaphragm, and sticking a cone on the pin.
Surrounding tents were supplied with similar speakers, the wires forming a sort of web under the sand with our tent in the centre. Of course the station we selected was not always the one desired by our satellite customers, - but you can’t please all of the people. My brother informs me that the modified earphone idea was used in the army too, - being in ‘signals’ he was in a position to provide discarded earphones, so he knows.
We heard the ‘World Service’ from England, always a pleasure to hear the calm, measured tones of Alvar Lidell beamed across all those miles saying — “This is London”, and of course the popular songs of those days — Lily Marlene, We’ll meet again etc. Another frequent song was ‘Rum and Coca cola’ by the Andrews Sisters, but this one didn’t come from an English station as the second line was considered too suggestive for us — it was ‘Working for the Yankee Dollar’.
During my time at Tura, I had a ride on the footplate of a steam engine! A friend and I had gone to Helwan, about six miles from Tura, by train, to have a swim. We stood on Helwan station ready for the return journey. As the train arrived, it was packed with locals, many clinging to the outside of the coaches — a common practice out there. The engine driver signalled to us to join him in the cab, which of course we were delighted to do, he obviously anticipated a tip (baksheesh). He sign language which control was for the whistle, and which one for the brake, we obligingly operated these at the appropriate time. Not the sort of privilege we could have enjoyed at home.
And then there was the Christmas show. Among the motley inhabitants of ‘treble one’ there were enough comedians, musicians’ singers, and other entertainers to provide a lengthy show (some of these may have been professional’s pre war). It was really something to see familiar faces appear on stage and gallantly do their bit. Among them was a ‘store basher’ generally seen heaving propellers about and suitably attired for that task, but he was a singer. When he came stalking on to the stage in a smart home made outfit, and began to sing, it was another unforgettable memory for me. It was truly professional delivery, - he sort of swelled up like a cockerel does when it starts to crow and an unexpected powerful voice stunned us all into a respectful silence. He sang “The Road to Mandalay” — we heard every word, and on the rare occasions I hear it now, I can’t help thinking it is not being sung as well as I heard it all those years ago, - to be fair, it may be that my ears were in better nick then, but it still brings back the vision of our store basher doing his bit in front of us all.
Because of the difficulty in getting spare parts, we were sometimes obliged to use parts from an engine graveyard in the valley. I have a memory of a group of us going down early in the day, and sitting huddled in a large empty crate recovering from the walk down.
With a view to gathering qualifications post war in civvy street, for a “Ground Engineers ‘D’ licence which I had read about, and which required two years experience in stripping and assembling aero engines, and test bench experience, I applied to be transferred from ‘EPS’ to the test benches. It was agreed, so I started work down in the valley, where there were test benches for Allison, Pratt and Whitney, Rolls, Merlin, Packard Merlin and Bristol engines — ten benches at first, twenty by 1945. This meant occasionally working at night when it was too hot to run engines during the day. Engines were run continuously after overhaul for about eight hours, and the circulating oil needed to be cooled. This was done by piping it through water which was cooled by pumping it to the tope of a wooden slatted tower, the water being cooled as it passed over the slats on the way down, - most of it could be re-cycled. Not all of it though, that which escaped formed a stream which wound its way down a slope and into a depression in the sand, it looked like a miniature river Nile.
This unplanned irrigation had been going on for some time before I joined the ‘bench’ people, and when I saw it for the first time, there was greenery each side of the stream.
I soon discovered that once we had mounted an engine and airscrew on to the bench, and it had settled down to its endurance run, one of us was left to monitor the oil consumption, watch the temperature etc, releasing others to escape from the roar of the engine, walk away from the bench, and follow the stream until the engine noise was muffled by a sand dune. Out earplugs could then be removed, we could settle down by the stream. If we heard our engine coughing and spluttering, we would have to rush back, of course to sort it out.
After I had completed what I considered the required time for self imposed apprenticeship in Test Benches, I got myself transferred to the E.R.S. — Engine Repair Section. This section included stripping, cylinder machining, carburettor, and assembly sections. All very interesting of course, but before I had time to get round all of the sections, my Flight Sergeant ordered me to work in his office to give him a hand. Quite flattered I was, and pleased to have a sort of unpaid executive job.
An advantage of being based at Treble One was that we were well placed to use our leave periods to go and view the exotic ancient sights which only rich people could afford to go and see pre-war.
Alexandria was easy to get to, the main attraction there being the ‘Fleet Club’ with its iced coffee and entertainment at a price we could afford. We also accepted the hospitality of the Yacht Club who provided a free meal for servicemen on leave, and lay on a large yacht crew to take us on a tour of the harbour. We did not actually see any member of the Yacht Club, only their Egyptian servants. The clubhouse was large, airy and oozed luxury. We erks, now used to the bustle clatter and basic conditions found in our own cookhouse were now faced with tables beautifully laid out and groaning under the weight of food. Although well able to handle our own issued ‘irons’ at our mess table, we were puzzled by the array of cutlery in front t of us but in the absence of our hosts there was no one to be offended by our antics.
It was during one of our final periods in 1945 that the war in Europe ended — May 8th V.E. day. We were in Lebanon at the time, place called St. Andrew’s Mountain House. In contrast to the sand and dust of Tura it was beautiful up there. We scrambled among the rocks dipped our toes in icy cold streams, and paused frequently to listen to the ringing of bells from numerous belfries, - don’t know if they were churches or monasteries — it didn’t matter. We could also buy American made chocolate up there. During the evening of F.E. day we had a bonfire, plus a few drinks, a far cry from the jubilant scenes we heard about in London, but the sense of relief was the same, we could now think about going home. Within a few months the Far East War ended — the atom bombs having been dropped first on Hiroshima followed by one on Nagasaki. On 15th August 1945 the Japs surrendered, the formal document being signed on 2nd Sept V.J. Day.
Work still went on for us, but we had much more free time. Most married men were being posted back to the U.K. having done 3 years abroad. Periodically there would be a ‘boat party’ in the N.A.A.F.I. to celebrate the event.
Early in December, I too was posted. The usual ritual of exchanging addresses took place. It was only then that I realised I was having mixed feelings. Excited at the thought of returning home, but a little apprehensive. I was 19 when I left home, now I was nearly 23. Before joining up I was cycling to and fro to the Rolling Mills at Brimsdown to my job as a junior clerk, what sort of job could they give me when I went back? The thought of that office in the Sheet Mill & the chilblains, were giving me cause for concern. Now I was about to leave what had been my home for years and leaving the other occupants of that tent, we had all got used to one another, I was going to miss that comradeship.
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