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Dad's Diary -Part 1 of 2

by rjmaharvey

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Arthur J. Harvey R.E.
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15 November 2004

Dad’s Diary

No. 271856 Royal Engineers
Spellings and punctuation as in original diary

Sunday May 1st 1943
After one of the best leaves, that I have ever known comes, once more, rather more than my usual share of running about.
First comes the mess-up, at Ganelockhead where it seems that a mistake was made in my first posting as a 2/LT. However I met some real good pals at Greenfields Camp, where I tossed up with Potton as to who should have the bed, and who, the settee in the anti-room.
I well remember Captain Hoare who shared my room. He was convalescent from an attack of pneumonia. He and Captain Rees vied with each other in a contest of coughing all night. Captain Rees was an easy winner.
At Belmore in the morning came the news that I was to report to East Kilbride. The rest of that day was pretty crowded, first with a trip to Strechenduff. And what a peach of an A.T.S. driver Major Payne has got. She was my best pal that day.
Fancy meeting old Squersby on Shandon station, he was the same terrific opinion of himself as ever. Then there was the 2/lieut who dropped his gloves on the station,and was forever leaving some part of his luggage in the wrong end of the train.
Perhaps the finest thing about this May day was the weather.
Helensburgh looking like Blackpool on an advertisement, bigger crowds than I’ve ever seen there previously. Not forgetting the two American sailors who were most upset when the crowd in our carriage diminished sufficiently to allow the girls to sit on the seat, instead of their knees.
Eventually however Glasgow was reached, across to Central Station and down via Caledonian to East Kilbride.
What a lovely place was East Kilbride station. The station master and his girl assistant who kindly allowed me to phone up for the utility. There was no utility of course and my baggage had to be left with the C.M.P, whilst I caught the Glasgow bus to Greenlees farm.

May 10th 1943
Things have been very hectic at East Rogerton camp what with company under mobilisation orders and getting ready all the various stores etc.
After getting myself more or less fixed up in Glasgow as regards my passport photos, tin trunk, khaki drills equipment etc, I returned to East Kilbride to learn that I could spend a few days at home. I did not take me very long to get into S.D. and together with Mr Davies, we were very soon away.
As on my previous leave, I arrived at Rugby somewhere about half-past five on Friday morning 14th May.
The phone number of Rugby 3849 (I must remember that), came in very useful once more, and by 7 o’clock I was walking upstairs at Astrop House.
It was admittedly a very short leave, for I returned on the Sunday night. But what a wonderful time we had. Edith, Ronnie and myself. Just we three.
Even a simple bicycle ride around Napton and Stockton to see th seven locks, can be an ideal afternoon’s entertainment. I still think that the less one does on leave, the more enjoyable is the time.
There was quite a “do” over my return to East Kilbride for there were no trains on a Sunday from Leamington to Rugby. So it either meant that I walked it, cycled it or went by taxi. The taxi was ruled out by the fact of Mr. Edwards being out and his wife naturally could not guarantee that he would be able to help me. Anyhow by a quarter to ten, it was raining fairly hard and we set of on bicycles.
Stan came with me so as to take back the other bike, and I arrived in good time after an encounter with a policeman in Rugby, who grumbled at me for having no lights.
I remember that the 11.15 train put in no appearance until 12.25, and then it was packed so tight that I at once got full length on the corridor floor and resigned myself to an uncomfortable sleep.
Strangely enough I met Mr, Davies at Glasgow, who had arrived about seven o’clock that morning. It was now nine o’clock.
I had a wash and shave at Cranstons in Renfield Street, and then caught the 10.39 to East Kilbride.
Our worst fears were founded, when we learned that 1037 Co had no transport left, so I knew that my view of the situation was indeed serious.

May 15
Very strange days these, with the whole company confined to camp, and working all hours of the night to get G1098 stuff packed away into cases. Helpless sorts of days when all things seemed to be coming to an end. We really cant tell if it is an end or a beginning.

May 18
Things happen very quickly once everyone is on the train and all equipment safely tucked away. For within the hour, we had left East Kilbride and were alongside one of the many ships in George V Dock Glasgow. Once I had arranged for our stores to be put on board I went up the gangwayto see what sort of a home we had for the next few days.
The vessel was a Dutchman named “Boissecrain” of 15,000 tons with excellent first class accommodation. The men were by no means comfortable however.
My cabin E71 was beautifully equipped with washing facilities etc, and I knew that I was going to be comfortable.
The dining room was a marvellous piece of work, which reminded me of the Brasserie in Coventry St London.

May 19.
We had cruised down the Clyde gently and anchored off Greenock. I was now in one of the many ships that Edie and I had often looked at from Helensburgh.
The ship was ‘turning the compass’ which gives the impression that the captain of the ship is haywire.
Exactly at 1900 hrs on the 19th May, we passed the boom, and our voyage had begun. Lifebelts were now carried continuously, and we had to sleep fully dressed.
The sea was remarkably calm in the narrows around the Isle of Arran, and a guey mist came down which obscured everything from our view.
A few spitfires zoomed to and fro to bid us farewell on our way.

20th May.
We could just see the west coast of Ireland in the morning but by the afternoon there was nothing but sea. Our course appeared to be due west, and at times it was due north.
Everyone seemed to be in the best of spirits and no sign of “mal de mere”.
Naturally we had our little spot of boat drill to liven up our days routine and we had also, an aircraft alarm, which may, or may not have been a practise.

21st May
More boat drills and quite a lot of bulsh down in the hatches. Blankets rolled this way, that way, all ways etc. However quite an enjoyable day. Orange Crush in the lounge, Solo, books to read, etc, etc.

22 May
The ship is completly dry much to our disgust, but a large quantity of cigarettes were released as soon as we had passed the boom. They were remarkably cheap at 1/8 for 50, while strangly enough no-one had any great appetite for smoking. Towards the end of this day, I was feeling decidedly upset in the stomach regions. We had set a zig zag course which had now brought us well out into the Atlantic. An approximate position which I got from the captain made us 800 miles from the west coast of France, and about the same latitude as Lorient.
During the dinner session we were shocked by the explosion of three hefty bombs which were aimed at our escorting aircraft carrier “Indomitable”. The Fokke Wolfe plane was at 19000 feet and was quite unobserved.
Considerable damage was put up but the plane seemed unperturbed and generally proceeded to turn towards the east, and vanished from sight.
Seafires went up in pursuit but we didn’t think they had much of a chance. The sea is now very heavy, and the ship is quite uncomfortable down below decks.
I admit I didn’t feel well enough to go to dinner tonight but lay down quietly instead.

23 May
It is very rough still this morning and I spent most of the time on deckwatching everyone else do P.T. There are strong signs of a tropical climate. Sun very high, hot and clear. Sea almost a ridiculous reckitts blue, and in the evening shoals of flying fish.
Our position now is 380 miles south west of Gibraltar.
Half of our convoy broke away today and proceeded on its way to India. The carrier stays with us, but the cruiser “Cumberland” went on to the south.
Destroyers seem to have a continual hunt for U boats lately. They hoist the black flag frequently and go haring away in circles dropping numerous depth charges. Our speed keeps up a steady 15 knots or thereabouts.

24th May
This evening we passed through the straights of Gibraltar, and saw nothing except a few lights flickering from the coast of Spain.
On the starboard side however, there was a marvelous sight as we passed Tangiers. There is no blackout in force here which brings back a pre-war sight of thousands of twinkling lights from the water front, to the hills in the rear.
There was considerable shipping about now, including two brilliantly lighted Hospital ships, which were bound for England.
Small fishing boats could be detected in the darkness, sometimes by silouhetting against the lights of Tangiers, and at other times by their own lights.

25th May
The sea does not look quite so brilliant a blue today for there is considerable haze over-head. Our convoy has again spread out after passing the straights, and is making a little more speed. Probably about 18 knots.
This afternoon I saw our first Dolphins. A dark tall fin appears first, cutting the water like a knife, then the shapely dark brown fish cleaves the surface in a series of leaps, something like the sea lions at the zoo.
Towards the middle of the day we could see the town of Algiers very clearly. It lays in a circular bay, some ten miles across, with high hills running all the way round, with the exception of a large flat position to the south.
Banks upon banks of large white buildings rise from the water front to the hills behind. There is a fair sprinkling of greenery and even from this distance, one or two splashes of colour. Probably flowers.
We are now out about four miles, steaming slowly towards the harbour entrance, waiting for our turn to berth.
The destroyers and other escort vessels have gone into their own berths quite quickly. There is a lot of work to do on the ship just now, collecting all the men, and their gear.
Everyone is disembarking in K.D. with white kit and battle order.
At approximatly midday we touched in very gently on the north quay of the grand mole, and the stream of men began almost at once, to file off, onto the quay.
We were lucky to be one of the first serials to leave the ship, although even the short wait that we did have, was very tiresome. The heat was terrific, and the men had to wait in the communication spout with their ever increasing load of kit.
Once off the gangway we dumped kitbags and fell in as a company on the quayside. My section was all complete with the exception of one respirator. We had been warned that the transit camps were something like ten miles distant, so we were prepared for a nasty march.

31 May 1943
This past week has been rather hectic, being spent in the
Stadt Municipal which is the main transit camp for Algiers. Our march from the ship, to the camp was no where near as bad as we had expected, being about 3 miles only. However it was terribly hot and it was plenty far enough. The transit camp was nothing more nor less than a sports stadium, with stands as beds for the men, and under the stands for the officers.
We of course had our camp kit up in no time and soon made ourselves comfortable.
George Macroleon and I had some very interesting walks during this week, taking our first glance at Algiers.
The quarter we explored proved to be the East End and very sordid. The Arabs crowding the filthy wine shops, showed us every respect however, and made way for us to walk beneath the avenues of plantain trees which line nearly every street.

1st June 1943
We are now fixed up in our billets. The men in Pave Stephan, which leaves a great deal to be desired and ourselves in a block of flats some half a mile away. My own room was exceedingly comfortable, tiled floor, decent modern furniture, piano and a peach of a bathroom, quite equal to the very best of English ones. We all still use our camp kit which is really excellent.
My hostess Madam Nadal has a little boy, George, about two years old, with whom I very soon made good friends. Madam and Monsieur can speak no English at all, which is all to the good in some respects, for I am learning my French very quickly.
George is very fond of playing the piano, and pushing my camp chair along the tiled floor. His only toy appears to be a wooden horse with its broken forelegs thrust into a tobacco tin. They all appreciate our British cigarettes and chocolate. The French cigarettes are quite plentiful, but are reputed to be made from potatoes. Each cig needs a box of matches to keep it alight.
The French way of eating is very strange, and not much like our usual routine in England. Breakfast for instance usually consists of a glass of Vin Rouge with grapes or cherries etc, according to the seasons. The midday meal is very light too. More red wine with a little brown bread and usually some kind of rice dish. Tea time appears non-existent, but the main meal starts very late about nine o’clock and is very varied. Bags of red wine as usual, bread, and numerous small dishes
This main meal lasts ages when once it does start and will carry on until eleven o’clock or so.
The old red wine bottle is always on the go, and there is another bottle when the first is empty. This drink is quite as cheap as our usual corona or similar aerated waters at home. On average about five francs or sixpence is paid for a full quart bottle. During the midsummer days, grapes were exceedingly plentiful and twenty or thirty bunches of white ones, would be put on the table for a meal for say, six people. These grapes are eaten with a gusto, and very unlike the delicate touch one sees in England.

July 1943
By a chance of good luck we were able to secure an option of billets for the men, and a mess for we officers, being vacated by an E.M. Coy R.E. (541).
After the usual preliminaries we finally fixed a date for the Coy. move and it was easily accomplished one evening as the men returned from the docks. We had set all the machinery in motion for the move of the officers mess, but it wasn’t until about eight o’clock that I rode up on my motorcycle to see what our new home was to be like.
The approach was something awful, resembling a cross between a motorcycle trail, and petticoat lane on a Sunday. For the last half mile or so there is no road. Just a red sandy path which is cut by gullies caused by water in the rainy season. Arabs sit lie and stand everywhere, some on their piles of lemons melons or grapes and the rest just sleep. Of course there is the usual half a dozen undressed little wretches shouting out their perpetual “Johnnie” “Johnnie” “Sheringham” “Ceegarette”. As soon as the old bike is slowed down to ten miles an hour or so, these kids will hang on all round.
This attention by all the local wogs is interesting at first, but rapidly becomes a pest. One of my dodges, was to brake violently causing a commotion in the string of kids following. Then a sharp twist of the wrist would send the old bike into a wild inferno covering the parasites with soot. However we had to buckle down to the fact that we should get a retinue each time we arrived at the mess.

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