AN ALTERNATIVE D-DAY DIARY
My father was an engineer with British Tankers (BP) from 1937 and spent most of the war years at sea around the Middle East, Australia, and India. In 1943 he returned to Britain for a very belated leave and to take his chief engineers exams. He left the UK on May 1st 1944 travelling as a passenger to join a ship at Abadan.
We recently came across his diary for 1944 and below is a verbatim extract for June 6th, D-day, and the next day.
This is followed by an extract from his ‘memoirs’ of life at sea covering this return journey. It covers the period from May 1st to June 12th 1944 and I believe shows an entirely different aspect of wartime life from that normally published.
June 6th 1944
Left Haifa 6.00am.
Taxi to Damascus. Marvellous scenery to Syrian border.
Nairn super de-luxe streamline coach to Baghdad.
Rutba Wells 10.00pm
June 7th 1944
Arrived Baghdad 9.00am
Good journey, good sleep
Staying Sinbad Hotel
Left Baghdad 4.00pm, sleeper ( train for Basra )
met Army Captain R Proudfoot.
“Passenger to Abadan”
This ship was a pleasure when compared to the previous vessel. (The return to Britain on a troopship). The cabins had four berths for four people and it was so much cleaner and much better organised. I met up with an old colleague from the "British Motorist" who was also going off to Abadan. There was a jolly crowd on board and we had a pleasant and uneventful voyage of two weeks, our travelling companions being mostly Royal Air Force and Queens Auxiliary nurses, plus a few civilians going out to work.
We arrived at Port Said where we disembarked and were appointed to various hotels. Having spent quite a while in Port Said at various times we knew our way about, and the hotel we were appointed to (there were four of us) was in peace time quite a good hotel, but when we examined our room the beds were filthy and so we refused to stay there. The manager was told four times that the beds were filthy, and we had him up into the room, but to no effect. We informed our agent that we would not stay there so he asked if we would mind staying in a private house, run by a Greek lady. We went to have a look at the house and without hesitation booked in. The house was clean, the rooms were spotless, and it was very comfortable and it was situated overlooking the canal. The only snag was that we were not able to have any meals in the house. All our meals would have to be in a restaurant that we used to frequent when we were in Port Said at previous times, called Giannola's, so due to our complaining we had some excellent meals much to the others disgust. We had to wait ten days in Port Said and filled our time by playing snooker at the Italian club, or swimming off the beach. An old friend of mine lent us his beach hut, so we were well away.
The only thing wrong with our stay was that we had no spending money. We were only allowed to leave England with five pounds and the agent could not supply us with any more money as we had not been engaged by the Company on this trip long enough to have earned any. We managed to find a bit extra, but as we did not know where we would be going next we just had to play safe.
After ten days we left for Cairo by train. Travelling on the train between Port Said and Cairo gave one a fairly good image of what it must have been like in biblical days. On one side of the railway was a road that appeared to be quite normal, but on the other side were farms and pastureland, and a stream running alongside the railway. These farms were watered by old style pumps drawing water from the stream. There were various types, some were of the Archimedean type in which an Archimedean drill was turned within a tube by hand, so drawing up the water, or by means of a horse or bullock walking around a circular path, turning a spindle which we presumed was drawing the water from a well. It all seemed so strange and ancient. Another unusual thing was to see a haystack with four tiny legs and a tail, with a camels head in front, walking along; they certainly loaded their camels and it made one think of the axiom "the last straw that broke the camels back”. Some of the ploughs had single blades similar to those seen in biblical pictures. There was so much to see and it was all very interested but unfortunately the light was dimming. The next point of interest was crossing the canal at Kantara on a bridge that we had passed many times whilst on passages through the canal. It was a swing bridge and this was the first time I had seen it in action.
Arriving in Cairo, we were booked in at a reasonable hotel. We clubbed together and visited the Pyramids by taxi, had the usual camel ride from the entrance to the site, went inside the Great Pyramid, and for a few Piastres paid to see the "Sarcophagus" or the tomb. The ‘dragoman’, or guide, had a small strip of magnesium which he lit and in the few seconds that it was burning you could just see the stone tomb, for the place, right in the interior of the pyramid, was absolutely dark. The visit was well worth it, and an education. On the way back we saw the zoo and noticed that trams went there, so the next day we made a visit to the zoo by tram. I had heard whilst at home that some of my old school friends were stationed in Cairo in the Army so I made a few inquiries as to their whereabouts, but the information I had made it a hopeless task. We made a point of seeing as much of Cairo as possible in our four day stay, including having a drink at Shepherds Hotel, which used to be the high point of any stay in Cairo.
We left in the late evening to proceed to Haifa, again by train. We were awakened from a sleep entering Palestine to have our passports checked, and again awakened in the early morning to see the sea alongside the railway as the line followed the seashore. It was a freshening sight as the sight of the sea usually is first thing in the morning.
We arrived at Haifa and were appointed to various hotels. We were still with our particular friends and this time we had no trouble with the hotel. It was quite clean but very sparse, but our stay was only for three days. There was not a lot we could do; we visited the "souk" or native bazaar, swam in the sea, and went to army dances in the evenings.
It was unfortunate that we did know when we would be leaving so we could not go too far afield as we had to be on hand at short notice, otherwise we might have been able to make a visit to Jerusalem. There was a war on though, and we were part of it, and I suppose wanted by someone.
We left Haifa very early one morning, which as it turned out was a notable day in history although we were unaware of it at the time. We went off in three big American Plymouth taxis, four to a car. It was June and all the orange groves were in full colour. Big jaffa oranges were all over the road and everywhere one looked. It was a shame when we thought of the people at home who could not get an orange. Mind you, neither could we for we carried straight on.
Driving over the Heights of Abraham, the view was fascinating. l do not know how high we were, but the engine broke down and we came to a stop. The driver seemed to know what was the matter as he opened the bonnet and removed the air filter and put it inside the car, and we continued. Possibly the engine did not care for the rarefied air. We arrived at Damascus late in the morning and were shown into a hotel where we saw our colleagues from the first car sitting around a table in the bar. All were looking so worried and thoughtful we wondered what was the matter. The answer came, "The British have landed on the beaches in France". We called up four beers and toasted their success, lunch was served, and we were told to be ready for four o'clock. This gave us about two hours to look around Damascus; we made the most of it by visiting the souke which was not too far away from the hotel.
We were driven off to the bus depot, where we boarded coaches run by the Scottish company Nairns, who operated a fleet of coaches equipped to cross the desert. They were fitted with not over comfortable reclining seats made of canvas which were a little like a deck chair, but they were well made to withstand the terrific heat of the desert travel. They were the last word in desert travel with air conditioning and even a bar at the back for the sale of bottled beer and other drinks, but you needed to drink from the bottle with a straw because of the bumpy ride. There was also a toilet at the back, but it required a brave man to use it as the seat was of wood, and at the after end the springing going over the desert caused ones head to hit the roof pretty hard. Leaving Damascus through the housing area we passed along roads bordered by very palatial dwellings as could be seen in any wealthy town, but we soon left the town area and were in the desert and it was not long before we had to get out and the Custom Officers counted us all.
The desert journey began and we were off. There was no road but now and again there were signboards, pointing to Baghdad. The drivers, who were in a separate cab, travelled by means of a compass and by dead reckoning navigation, but they were aware of the route we were taking although there were no landmarks. The journey was very bumpy and although there was another bus with us we rarely saw it because of the dust and sand we were blowing up. One thing that I well remember was seeing, on a hilltop, a fort of the type used by French Foreign Legion, and then we stopped for a lone soldier of the Legion who we guessed was collecting the mail.
It was all very interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed the journey as it was a once in a lifetime experience with the opportunity to see wild camels running around in herds and places in the desert we had read of but never expected to see. We stopped at an oasis for a short time to stretch our legs, and later at "Rutbah Wells”, where there was an open-air market and I bought a "Burnous" for the sake of buying something in the desert, but we were still short of cash. We had no Syrian money, but it was a bit of fun. It was ten o'clock in the evening and the market was in full swing, and among all the desert Bedouins it was a strange experience.
We carried on with most of us managing to get some sleep until about 7 a.m. when we pulled up at a "Hotel" for breakfast. The hotel stood out of the ground about two feet high and was entered by going down a flight of steps in the sand. We wondered where we were going, but it was laid out with tables and breakfast was served. While we were having our meal a number of British nurses arrived. They were all dressed in their white uniforms, which were no longer a white colour as they were travelling in an ordinary single decker bus. We felt a bit sorry for them but even under those very hot conditions they were smiling and happy. In contrast some of our travelling companions were grumbling, even though we were travelling in first class air-conditioned comfort.
We arrived in Baghdad about 9 o'clock that morning and were taken to our hotel where our room overlooked the river Tigris. We were looking forward to our visit and set of to tour the City, but our luck was short lived as when we returned to the hotel we were told that the engineers were to catch the evening train to Basra. There were four of us and we were a bit disappointed, but that was why we were travelling, we were on business and there was a war on, and it was not a holiday tour.
Arriving in Basra about 10 o'clock next morning, a motor launch was waiting and we travelled to Abadan along the river. It was not a comfortable trip, very hot and sticky, especially when the Customs Officers made us wait for about half an hour in the launch whilst they checked and stamped our passports.
Arriving at the Company Office I was immediately assigned as Second Engineer to the “Empire Sapphire", the very same vessel that I had left as a passenger almost a year before. I had done a lot of travelling in that time, had had my home leave and passed my examinations for Chief Engineer, so I was ready for another spell at sea.