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15 October 2014
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A Baker at War - Part 4

by Norfolk Adult Education Service

Contributed by 
Norfolk Adult Education Service
People in story: 
Wesley Piercy
Location of story: 
Middle East
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
09 February 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Ann Redgrave of Norfolk Adult Education’s reminiscence team on behalf of Wesley Piercy and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

A Baker at War — Part 4

My story up to this point has been told in “A Baker at War” Parts 1, 2 & 3 on earlier entries to this site. It tells how I came to be working as a baker soldier with the BEF in France and my travels and adventures which brought me to el Tahag camp in the Middle East. I will resume my story with a description of life there.

While we were in our tents for the afternoon rest, the hawkers came round selling everything from fly whisks to dirty pictures. One who came into our tent selling magazines could speak a bit more English than the rest of them, claiming to have spent time in Manchester. Some of the chaps asked him if he had a wife to which he replied that he had had one, but she would not work so he got rid of her. He was selling these books to get enough money to get another one, who he would send out to work for him. Another chap used to come round shouting “Lovely Chai, Sergeant Major’s Chai” . He used to collect the remains of the night before’s tea from the NAAFI and sell it to us in the morning.

At the far end of Tahag was the PoWs cage containing Lybian prisoners. These were some of Mussolini’s colonial troops, who had been treated as canon fodder by the Italians, being put in front of their own troops with just five rounds of ammunition. They were all conscripts and hated the Italians and so used to surrender in droves at the first opportunity. They were quite happy as prisoners and willing to work for the British. Some were recruited into a unit called the Lybian Arab Force.

Another PoW cage was being constructed at the opposite end of Tahag, and while we were there four men and one NCO went as guards with a party of these Lybians who were fixing the barbed wire there. One day the Corporal who usually went reported sick and I had to go instead. We marched to the cage where we picked up sixty prisoners for whom I had to sign a receipt. We piled onto three ramshackle civilian lorries which took us to the new cage. As they had no desire to escape we were not really necessary. At the end of the day we just took them back and they were counted in with no problems.

There didn’t seem to be a place for me to do my proper job as a baker. After a few weeks at Tahag I was sent to a large supply depot where all the rations that came by sea were distributed all over the Middle East. This was near Ismailia. I was given a job in Shed 8 where all the damaged tinned goods were brought to be sorted out. This was a dirty job and we were not allowed to wear denims so our khaki drill uniforms got into a dreadful state. Then we would get told off for being scruffy. I was very relieved when we got orders to move from there to the Western Desert.

So, off we went to the Western Desert. We went by train to a place called Sidi Haneish where we left half of the unit while the rest of us proceeded to Mersa Matruh. This time we went by road. It was a town deserted by its usual inhabitants and was the forward base of what later became the Eighth Army. We took over from another Field Bakery which was housed in the old Egyptian Barracks. A small detachment of South Africans which had been attached to the other bakery stayed with us.

At this time they were using some Aldershot ovens as well as the usual Polly ones. They were made of two steel plates bent to a semi-circle, which were placed on the ground with a half round plate at the back. A fire was hit inside them and when hot enough the embers were spread about and the bread placed inside. Another steel plate was placed on front and sealed with mud. After 45 minutes the bread was ready to be taken out. The usual fuel was coal but this was in short supply in the Middle East so we used cotton seed cake as a substitute. These ovens were not very nice to work with and we were all glad when they could be dispensed with.

Matruh was classed as a forward area. The enemy was over the Libyan border which was marked with barbed wire stretching for hundreds of miles. Part of the Seventh Armoured Division was at Sollum on the border which was otherwise virtually undefended. The inland areas were a No Man’s Land. British patrols frequently went over the wire, and less frequently German or Italian patrols crossed in the other direction. Mainly however the interior was the hunting ground of the British Long Range Desert Group and similar units.

Our first task at Matruh was to give everything a good clean up. The dough mixing troughs were carried down to the salt lake and given a good scrub. A bakery needs a lot of water, and where we were there was none. A lorry with a tank on the back was attached to us with its driver. His job was to keep us supplied with water for bread making, washing, drinking and cooking. This came from a water point somewhere in the town. We could never have a bath, just a stand up wash. Fortunately with the salt lake nearby we could have a dip whenever we liked. I believe the usual water ratio in the desert was half a gallon per man per day for all purposes, but this did not apply to us.

There was no one in Mersa Matruh apart from British and Commonwealth troops and being only a few miles from the Libyan border it was a frequent target for air raids. The Italian bombers would come flying at a great height, barely visible to the naked eye and well out of range of anti-aircraft fire. On the whole they did little damage, but on one occasion they hit a building near us where a touring South African military band was staying. Several bandsmen were killed and all their instruments destroyed. We had been listening to them playing the previous day.

At this time Tobruk was under siege, held by Australians until they were relieved at the insistence of their government. Tobruk had to be supplied by sea and schooners based at Mersa Matruh, manned by Norwegians, carried them supplies. It was quite a spectacle to watch them leaving the harbour with their white sails set and the white Ensign at the masthead. Although there was a Field Bakery in Tobruk some of our bread was also carried over. These little ships did this trip for many months without loss.

When we first arrived in Matruh the building next to us was occupied bysome trigger-happy Australians. I never discovered what their job was, but they had armed pickets roaming about at night. If we happened to show a bit of light when we went to stoke our ovens, we were likely tohave a shot fired over our heads. This became a regular thing, and a bit tiresome after a while. We got out chance to retaliate when they left their door wide open, streaming out light, and we threw a few rocks in their direction. They soon shut the door. Later on, the Aussies departed and we came under South African command. It was about this time that we became known as the Eighth Army.

In the meantime the railway had been extended from Matruh to a place called Mischiefa. This was not a town or village but just a spot on the map. The other half of No.33 Field Bakery which we had left at Bobita, now moved forward to the new railhead. Leave to the Delta was started now — three men at a time for seven days. My time came in September when I enjoyed a week in Cairo with two others. Among other things, we visited the pyramids and Sphinx at Gizeh. I was somewhat surprised to find that we could get there on a tram.

The build up for an offensive was starting, new troops arriving as well as hundreds of American tanks and other equipment. General Smuts came to inspect the South Africans and drove over an unexploded bomb which had been covered over without anyone noticing till after he had gone. No harm was done and it was dealt with later.

Eventually the “push” got underway in November. Tobruk was relieved and Benghasi was taken briefly then lost again. In the meantime, things in Mersa Matruh had become much more peaceful: quiet enough for a South African concert party to be billeted near us. This caused some excitement amongst us as the party included several attractive young ladies. They stayed for about a week, giving a performance every day so that everyone in the area had a chance to come and see the show. Some of our people managed to see it more than once.

We had a unit canteen managed by a corporal named Ernie, which sold beer, cigarettes and the usual toiletries. One day I went in and found Ernie unpacking some bottles of whiskey he had just bought from the NAAFI store. I said “I’ll have one of those” and to my surprise he handed one over (only sergeants and above were allowed whiskey).

Christmas was now approaching and for some reason there was no beer in the Western Desert. Rumour said that a ship had been sunk. When the next ship arrived the first consignment was sent to the forward area, which did not now include Mersa Matruh. Before any more could be sent heavy rain washed away part of the railway track so there was still no beer for us. On Christmas Day, after we’d had our turkey and plum pudding, the chaps in my room were bemoaning the lack of beer. At this point I produced my bottle of whiskey and my popularity rose to unprecedented heights. The whiskey quickly disappeared, and everyone was now happy.

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