- 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.
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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