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The ATS in the Desert: Part Iicon for Recommended story

by Hannah Tilayeff Roberts

Contributed by 
Hannah Tilayeff Roberts
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 November 2003

Born in Baku

I am Hannah Tilayeff Roberts. I was at school when war broke out, and I can remember us all being sent home. 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.

Joining the ATS

In 1942 I finished school. As Palestine was under a British mandate I joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) without even telling my parents. Palestine was a very busy little country then and 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, such as cinemas, theatres, buses and so on. All homes were open to them, with a very warm welcome.

A woman in charge

I was trained in Sarafand for three months then sent on a driver training course in Cairo, not far from the pyramids. The company with which I trained was unique in the British forces because it was led by a woman, Major McKenzie. She was in command of a company of soldiers and the ATS.

We had to discover how to drive in the dark, over desert, through quicksand and sandstorms. We had to learn how to maintain and repair the vehicles.

Rum rations

One morning, after a night of torrential rain, we awoke to find ourselves awash. Our kit bags were afloat, and the beds under water.

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.

The three Hannahs

After passing our training we had our posting to Tel el Kabir, which was in the desert. Some of us 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 the Hannahs the fair one was called Blondie, the dark-haired one Blackie, while I was just Hannah. The fourth girl was Liza, from a kibbutz (Digania B). One of the Hannahs, Blondie (Hannah Zuta), was killed in Jerusalem in the War of Independence.

Desert sand in everything

Life in the desert was hard. Mornings and nights were bitterly cold, while 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 that 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 and Alexandria.

Leading the way for Montgomery

We’d travel in convoys. I hated being the last in the convoy for fear of losing the others. I had no sense of orientation. Even today I have the same problem.

On one occasion we drove jeeps to Alexandria. When we got back to camp there was a letter from Montgomery (Field Marshal Montgomery, who was in command of the 8th Army, the Desert Rats), complimenting us on our driving. He had been driving behind us.

Lessons of a lifetime

When driving our orders were not to stop, whatever happened. If people tried 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 much that, even today, I can dodge people if they step into the road.

[Read part 2 of this story.]

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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 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 16 December 2003 by Bob Gibb - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Hannah!

A fascinating story and I'm so happy that it all ended so happily.

You are a good writer, but one tiny criticism . . . get your name spellings right! Was it Major McKenzie or Major Mackenzie? We Scots tend to be about fussy about the Macs.

Keep writing Hannah.


Bob Gibb (A Writing Buddy)

Message 1 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 09 February 2004 by Stella Little

Hello Hannah,
I read your account with much
interest as there are many names that my late father had mentioned. I am wondering if you ever met him. I realise it is a long shot, you must have met hundreds of people. However, his name was John Little, he was 21 in 1939, married to Stella, they lived in South Norwood, London. He was in the 8th Army in Palestine until about 1945. For a time he was a medical orderly.(I believe after he had had his appendix removed). I do have an Egyptian newspaper cutting with a photo of him with other medical staff taken at this time. He was a guard in "The Mikado" at the Cairo Royal Opera House. He played piano for the officers. He returned to England and was then sent to Norway. Thank you for reading this.
my email address is


Message 2 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 29 March 2004 by joan ainscow

hi hannah it was great to read your story you must have been very brave young people,my father was there with the gorden highlanders 5th /7th 7 would like to know more of them please joanainscow


Message 3 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 29 March 2004 by joan ainscow


Message 4 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 08 March 2005 by Margaret Penfold

Hello Hanna,

I was fascinated by your account. I would love to hear more details of your training at Sarafand. Were you one of the first recruits to the ATS in Palestine.
Whereabouts did you live in Palestine before you joined up?
I lived in Palestine between 1936 and 1943 and again for six mnths from Nov. 1946, but as I wasn't born until 1933 I was not old enough to join up,


Message 1 - ATS in the desert

Posted on: 14 November 2004 by determinedpaddie

I was fascinated to read your story as my mother was also stationed in Sarafand. Sarafand was/is an important place for me as that is where my parents met and married. I also remember her talking about Major McKenzie!
My mother's name was Betty Crawford. I think she was a Seargeant in the ATS there.

Message 1 - Good!!!

Posted on: 20 December 2004 by Tiny-T

Hey there! I'm Jay, I really enjoyed reading that my friend, well done!

Keep up the good work!


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