- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mrs Olive Cooper Mr Charles Edwin Cooper
- Location of story:
- Nottingham and Abroad
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 August 2005
Some of the boys at Hafia 1943
This story was submitted to the People's War site by CSV/BBC Radio Nottingham on behalf of Mrs Olive Cooper with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
We left Iran by lorry to Haifa Station and by rail to a place called El Tag. This was a very large camp and was on the banks of the Sweet Water Canal. We were back in tents again. There was a very large P.O.W camp not faraway and some of us did guard duty. Some were put in the cook-house. Every morning a list of jobs went up outside the office, also a list of the names of men and where they had to go. Some of the lads were sent to Italy. Some were even sent to Alexandra to join a ship taking German prisoners to Canada. One day my name and Tom's were on the list and we were to report to the Guard Room at 6.00 a.m. the next day. This we did to find that we had to take a man to Alexandria Prison. We were taken to the station in a truck with him hand-cuffed between us and then on to a special carriage. When the train stopped at a station we took him to the `Red Cap's' office. They unlocked him and took him to the W.C. We reported to the R.T.O. at Alex (Railway Transport Officer) and he arranged for a truck for us to take him to the Army prison at Mustafa Barrack, Alex. The man had a life sentence for murder. I remember we had to go to a B.S.D. (Base Supply Depot) to do guard duty. The men who were doing this duty there about 70% were from the old 10th. This depot was a very large place and it was all under cover. I would say that it was as large as a football pitch. At one end of the depot was another area which had a large wire fence around it. In this area was kept all types of spirits and wines. Well, those on duty were locked inside the wine-house for the night. I think that it was about four men at a time. One night we were on duty and two men took in water in water bottles with them and the other two took empty bottles in. During the night one climbed over the fence into the small area and very carefully opened a box of brandy and filled the two empty bottles with brandy and then filled the brandy bottle up with the water from the water bottles. This we did about once a week, when fresh supplies came in. It was in this area of our camp that the film "The Three Feathers" was partly made. I was moved with some of the old 10th to a small camp near to the docks at Alexandria. We were taken to the docks by lorry (there was only 12 of us) and we reported to an office where we were given a lot of food which the lorries would collect during the day - also told which house to go to. We then went to a compound and collected 10 wogs, natives, and an "Afendi" - he was the `boss' The lorries came and the `wogs' loaded them with different food. Some would have bags of sugar, sacks of flour, Cases of tinned spuds, fruit jam etc. We found that all the ships which were being loaded were going to Malta. At the bottom of our little camp there was an Egyptian cemetery and, at night, people would come and sit by the graves and start chanting and this kept us awake. One night Tom and I put a white sheet over our heads and ran through the graves. We did not get anymore sleepless nights! We used to `pinch' tea and sugar out of the warehouse so we could have a brew up at the camp.
It was about this time that `Monty' was taking over the 8th army and there were a lot of troops in the Suez area. About 30 of the lads who were in the old lOth were sent to Suez to organize a bakery. The site we were told to use was about one mile outside the town. When we got there all there was in the camp was a long wooden hut, which we used to sleep in, and we had our food with a unit of R.E’s who were across the road. About two days later we had a new mobile bakery delivered to us, direct from England and six civvies with it to show us how to put it together. The ovens were `Polly Ovens' on wheels. They had an oil lamp underneath and a large fan, also a small tank. The oil was pumped from the large tank, up to the small tank and it was blown into the fire box by the fan. There were four of these ovens. Also on the trailers were the mixing machines, one with a moulding machine and one with the weighing machines These were pulled by 5 ton lorries which carried the tents for accommodation, a large marquee for the bakery, small ones for the stores and one for the bread room. Then there were bread racks, dough trough and all the other gear. There was a water wagon, oil wagon and Lista generators. The three tractors were put together in the large marquee, the ovens were put just inside the marquee. All the floor was covered by duck boards and the dough troughs were along the trailers. The covers which were over the lorries were over iron frames and these were lifted off the lorries and used for passage-ways between the bakery and bread stores. With the help of some of the `wogs' we had the bakery ready for working. The rest of the bakers and staff came in and then we only wanted the stores and production could start! The bakery was called the 55th Mobile Bakery As so happened we had not got anybody to do the cooking and so the `old man' (captain) asked To4 and I if we would do it until it could be arranged to have some cooks sent to us: We used the long wooden shed for a dining room, as, by now, the lads were in tents. We got the R,Es to build us a shed with corrugated sheets and, with a small I marquee, we had a good cookhouse. Tom and I had a tent to ourselves. We got the `wogs' to dig out the ground for the tents and, the soil they got out, they put round the sides so that only the top of the tents were above the soil. This was a lot cooler. We used flour bags for the floor and made beds out of bread sacks. We got electric wire and lights from the R.E. camp and so we had electric lights in the tents. So, all in all, we were very comfortable. The lads started to make some bread rolls and these we swapped for marg and sugar and jam. With these the night shift made some Chelsea buns and with these we swapped for other rations from ration lorries when they came for their supply of bread. Things got better each day. We had fresh meat from the ration trucks and the tinned stew that was our rations we made into Cornish Pasties and these were sold in our canteen. We took cakes to the N.A.F.F.I stores and got more than our share of beer and fags. So our canteen was always well stocked and the word soon went around. With all the profit we could buy goods in the Market in Suez. We had some French troops call for bread and we made a deal with them to make French Sticks in exchange for wine. So we had wine on the tables on Sundays, and we were able to employ some `wogs' to do the washing of pots and cleaning the fresh vegetables. There were a few very modern cinemas and it was in one of these one night I happened to met Reg Brown who worked with me in the Co-op bakery at Stapleford. So, we had a few days together.
It was during this time that the 8th army was shoving the Germans back up the desert and the troops started to get less and a fresh set of bakers came out from home and took over the bakery. This was a very sad day. We packed up and were taken to the railway station and given two days rations and put on to the train which went up to the desert.
When the train reached Alemain we had to change trains. By now the fighting in the desert had finished and the R.E.s laid a single track line up to Tobruk. It was on the line which we changed to back up the Western Desert again. It was unbelievable - but there it was!
Tobruk had been in British hands twice and in German hands twice so you can guess what a mess it was in. Our old bakery was flat as were our old sleeping huts. There was a brick hospital, which was Italian, down near the docks and we used what was left of this to use as a bakery and accommodation, but it was all hand work again, but we did manage to get four Polly's up by rail. After a short time one of the lads found a dough making machine on a scrap heap. We managed to get it into the bakery and with the help of some R.E.s we got it working so that made things a little better. But, there was nothing to do in the evening except there was a cinema, of a kind, held in a marquee. We had a canteen in an old house that had missed the bombing. Fresh water was piped up from Egypt and rations were not too bad. But, no rackets there! We had ten motor mechanics attached to us for messing and ?? because they were a detachment from another unit and they devised a cooking stove for us. Tom and I were put in the cookhouse ??. We had a little room to ourselves in a shack which we did up. The stove that the engineers made for us to cook on was made out of a sheet of corrugated iron, bent and dropped into a trench and half filled with sand. At one end ,there were two old four gallon petrol tins. One had water in and the other had diesel oil, mixed with a little petrol. There was a pipe from each (old petrol pipe from a lorry) with a small tap on. The one with oil was turned on first and the sand set afire, then the water was turned on and this gave a splutter effect. When the fire had got going the oil and water was regulated by the taps. We only used this for boiling as for any frying and cooking we used an oven in the bakery. Somewhere, out of the blue, a small dog came in to our camp, so I fed it and he stopped with us. We called him Duggy. By this time in the war a cemetery had been made on the Bardia Road and contained soldiers of all nationalities, and each grave had a small white headstone. The thirty odd lads who had been up in Tobruk before decided to see the Captain who was in charge and ask him if we could have a transfer to another bakery. He tried to arrange this by going down to Cairo H.Q., but he did not have any luck. So we had to stay put. A11 the cooks who took over the cooking for their units were taken from the units, the same as with Tom and I. But, as the war went on, a unit for cooks was set up and it was called Army Catering CopToany. It was whilst we were in Tobruk this time that we had a Corporal cook sent to us. So Tom and I had to come out and go back baking.
After about three days there was uproar in the camp. The lads had the captain over to the dining hall and told him about the meals which this chap was giving them and said they wanted Cooper and Hughes back in the cookhouse. As he (the captain) was having the same food as the lads he understood why they were playing up about the food. Well, Tom and I were asked to go back along with the corporal cook but, he would not do things our way and, as he was a corporal, we had to do it his way so, out Tom and I came again. But the C.O. did get rid of him by sending him up to Derma, about 100 miles up the desert!
Well, time went very slowly, there really was nowhere to walk to, only Sandy Bay and go fishing and swimming. My tour of overseas duty finished in April 1945 and this day could not come soon enough. But, at last, it drew near. We had thirty odd men come up to join the bakery and these were to replace us when our tour was up. At last our names were on orders that our time was up. The C.O. told us that, as far as he was concerned, we were free to go and gave us our papers. Now, as I have said before, an army train came up once a week and this was on a Wednesday. So this meant we had a week to wait for the train. Now, Tom and I had made good friends of the sergeant, who was in charge of the motor mechanics, and he said he would leave a small truck for us in their compound, fill it with petrol and put 3 x 4 gall. tins in the back and three tins of water. So six of us decided to drive down to Alex. He told us that he had heard that there was a ship in Alex. That was due to leave for the U.K. on Sunday. We took some tinned rations and bread and then, when it was dark, we set off up the Bardia Road, towards Alexandria. At Bardia we stopped at a camp and we managed to get some food and a drink. Then we carried on. The road was not all tarmac, in places it was just a track and this was marked by white pained oil drums, which were filled with sand. This was because some time after a sand storm the roads were covered with sand and you could not see where the road was. We had three drivers so we made good time. We had to dig the truck out of sand a few times, but we soon came to Alemaine and the road had been made right into Egypt. We went to Mustafa Barracks and left the truck there for someone to find. We reported to the Transport Officer, who sent us to the Transport Camp where we had a shower and a good meal and were told to report to the Dispatch Office on the docks the next day. We heard that there was a marquee, with all new uniforms in, so, when it was getting dark, we got in and found some new clothes!
The Transport Office gave us our papers and passes and told us to report to the Transport Officer on board the liner `Louis Pasteur' This was a French liner named after the man who discovered the new science of immunology. We sailed out of Alexandria on the Sunday morning tide. What a day! Although the ship was a cruise liner she had a lot of cargo in the holds and between decks There were only about 150 men on board so we had plenty of space and we had some very good food. We came back by North Africa; Gibraltar and into Liverpool on Saturday night. We had to stop on the ship until Sunday before we docked because of the tide. We were given one telegram each to send home. We went into a warehouse on the docks then each Company went to their respective depots Ours (RASE) was at Leeds. On arriving in Leeds we were given a month's pay, food ration cards and a railway warrant. At the station I said farewell to Tom - he caught a train to Swansea and I got one to Derby. I arrived in Stapleford early on Monday morning. The date was............. MAY 30th 1945
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