A DESERT RAT'S STORY
PALESTINE & EGYPT
In the sixth week of our journey we knew that we were entering
the Suez Canal. That in itself created great excitement. For the first time
since leaving Cape Town we saw other human beings. This time they were dressed
in a different manner, the men in long flowing robes, mostly white in colour,
the women from head to toe in black always with the face covered. It became
intensely hot from which there was no respite, and water on board was strictly
rationed. Although certain parts on either side of the Canal had some vegetation,
most of the land was sand.
Finally we berthed at Port Said late in the day and were told to get our gear together to be ready to disembark the following day. We could see on the quayside scores of Egyptian porters getting ready to unload the stores from the ship. This had to be done quickly as we would have been sitting targets for enemy bombers who had no doubt been informed of our arrival by their agents ashore. Egypt was not at war with Germany and was ruled by a very fun-loving and weak person, King Farouk.
The following morning as we lugged our kitbags down the gangway, we saw alongside the dock representatives of all the Cavalry Regiments serving in the Middle East – the 11th Hussars (The Cherrypickers), so named from an earlier war when they survived by living off cherries only, the 17th/21st Lancers (Death or Glory Boys), 13th/ 18th Hussars, 10th Hussars (Shiny Tenth ), 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (The Skins), an Irish regiment, The Scots Greys, and the Royal Dragoons. Many were mechanised with armoured cars and tanks and were assigned reconnaissance and other scouting jobs. Some were trained in tank warfare, and a few were still with horses. We were told to take our pick.
Although he never told me, Les James had made his mind up before leaving England to join the Royal Dragoons. During his last leave in England he had met a girl living in the Hammersmith area who had a brother named Tug Wilson serving with the Royal Dragoons. Although he had only known the girl for a week, this was enough for him to join the Royals. I just tagged along. Other regiments had tanks and armoured cars, but the Royals still had horses. I didn’t fancy being stuck in a tank, and the Royals were based in Palestine (as it was then called) which had enormous appeal for me. We gave our names at the desk and were told to put our gear on one of the waiting trucks. An hour or so later we were on our way.
In those days Palestine was sparsely occupied and the country had a great deal more vegetation than Egypt. For many years Jews and Arabs had been in conflict and the Palestine police force was formed with British men who were there to bring some sort of order. With the outbreak of war this force was disbanded and all the British were repatriated to England, but they were in no hurry to do so. Not only were they being paid extra money for overseas service, the likelihood of being called up on their return to England kept them settled in here to enjoy the pleasures of doing nothing for as long as they could.
After a few hours drive we approached Tiberius, a very attractive town and the headquarters of the regiment. Les and I and a few others were sent to Beisan in the Transjordan Valley, where we found that all the squadron slept in bell tents.
We slept three to a tent. My fellow Squaddies were two Welshmen
who must have arrived earlier than me as I could not remember seeing them
on board ship. One, named Lancaster, was already married and a father at the
age of twenty-one, and the other, Watkins, was also twenty-one but single.
Both were good footballers. I found them very secretive and they rapidly knew
a great deal about me, possibly by having shuffled through my kit-bag.
Life was quite pleasant there. The squadron had fully mounted horses tethered in lines on the periphery of the camp, and sentries patrolled throughout the day. Evenings would be spent in a large tent playing cards or Bingo. I was still drawing my equivalent of ten shillings a week which just about got me through a char and a wad for the week. We exercised the horses daily. I noticed the ground was barren and rocky and was being worked on by Jewish immigrants dragging and clearing huge stones in preparation for cultivation. The land had remained in its uncultivated condition for thousands of years when occupied solely by Arabs. This caused a great deal of conflict as once the ground was cleared the Arabs wanted it back.
From 1938 the Royals’ task was to take part in keeping order between the two sides. A certain amount of smuggling of arms and ammunition took place through the valleys bordering with Jordan. I was told a reward of three pence was given for each round of ammunition confiscated and £5.00 for a rifle, the money to be shared among the troop. We would mount up before dawn and remain hidden, and when a camel convoy came through we would charge and slash with swords at the huge grain sacks slung from each side of the camel. As the sword went in the grain poured out and with it the contraband. Although strict neutrality was the order. it seemed to me that the Arabs got a load of stick.
Beisan is in a valley on the border between Jordan and Palestine, a beautiful spot but alive with mosquitoes. I awoke one morning shuddering so much I shook the whole tent and sweat poured from me. The Medical Officer diagnosed B.T. Malaria and I was taken to hospital in Jerusalem staffed by nurses from the Queen Alexander Nursing Corps. I remained there for six weeks having daily doses of liquid quinine, in those days the only cure.
Nothing seemed to do any good. My temperature ranged from 102 to 105 degrees daily and would not come down. After three weeks and in a slight coma, I recall the Sister in charge of the ward peering down to me saying, “Tell me your true age and I will get you repatriated to England.” In my delirium I always replied that I was twenty five instead of saying my true age of eighteen. It never occurred to me to try to get back home through that means. In the ward was an old sweat named Woods who had been called up from the reserves and sent out to his old regiment. He was trying to work his ticket back by throwing epileptic fits. He would throw himself on the ground writhing and frothing at the mouth. Generally nobody took much notice. He was there when I arrived and still there when I left. I assume the doctors were not quite clear whether he was faking or not, but the nurses knew he was. I hope he made it back as he was no good for anything out there anyway and might have driven himself mad.
Eventually I recovered and found a message left for me to report to a depot responsible for transporting soldiers back to their regiments after hospitalisation. I was fairly weak by now having lost a great deal of weight, and I was pleased when I was told that it would be another week before I could move on as no transport was available.
In December 1940 the regiment were moved to Egypt, based in
Cairo, or rather Abbassia Barracks, about a mile from the Town Centre. The
horses had either been transferred to other mounted regiments or sold on.
We were told that we would now be supplied with Armoured Cars and would be
going up to the desert as a reconnaissance unit as soon as our training was
My particular training was as a navigator and gunner. Our cars were Marmon Harington armoured vehicles made in South Africa. The armoured plating was only half an inch thick and would not stop a shell fired from a tank. The upper part of the car had the roof off and in the centre was an Italian Breda gun and a huge amount of ammunition captured some months before. Our driver was Frankie Gasson, aged about twenty and formerly from Bromley in Kent, who had signed on in 1938 for six years. Two years later he was to meet his brother on the desert serving with the Scots Greys. I was very surprised at their lack of emotion, just a sort of embarrassed handshake, probably not wanting to show any emotion in front of other troopers. They did not meet again for several years. Our car commander was a peculiar little man, a full Corporal named Nick Carter. When he could he smoked continuously and his teeth were stained black. He was also round shouldered and nervous, not a born leader by any means.
Troops who had already spent a long time “up the blue” (the desert) helped out with our training and what we had to do to survive for months on end with very little water and food supplies. They taught us how to start a fire by mixing petrol and sand in a tin, and how to check compass readings. They also told us the trick of properly bedding down – roll up your overcoat for a pillow and scoop out the sand about to inches below the surface to keep our ammunition sand free. Most of these men came from The Cherrypickers (11th Hussars) who were the first up there. We learnt a great deal from them and were anxious to get away from barracks life and get some freedom.
Cairo had no damage from the war, possibly because the enemy hoped to occupy it after we had been kicked out. It was quite a pleasant place to spend an evening walking around in the warmth, stopping for an iced coffee now and again in Groppis. Hawkers and thieves abounded as well as “gully gully” men who walked around the outside tables of cafes calling out “gully gully gully” offering to forecast the future. As a laugh a Squaddie I was with one night handed over a few coins and put his hand out. The gully gully man looked at it with an expression of horror and forecast a great calamity. We laughed and he went on his way, but a few weeks later when my fellow Squaddie was seated on the wide mudguard of an armoured car directing the driver during the evening, the car went over a bump and he slide off under the wide tyres and was crushed to death. It all seemed to happen in slow motion.
"UP THE BLUE"
On the outbreak of war it was found that very few maps of Egypt,
Libya and all other Mid-eastern countries existed. Vast areas of unmapped
regions were charted showing only a dot for a place which was just a pile
of stones, but it still had a name such as Bir Hacheim. It could have been
that a well was there in days gone by. Prior to the war a man named Poliakoff,
a Pole then working in Egypt, spent a lot of time exploring the desert alone
and mapping certain parts. He was such a great help that he was financed from
Britain and formed a group known as Popski’s Private Army. Several other
groups came later, including the L.R.D.G.s (the Long Range Desert Group).
The distances were so vast that cars could roam around behind the lines and
sweep in on the enemy unexpectedly, dash past with guns blazing and cause
a lot of damage, then away before the enemy could mount up.
We all referred to the desert only as “up the blue.” Maybe it started as a security measure. I never did find out the reason. We became adapted to life on the desert, and it became possible to go on with little food and water for long periods. It is true that mirages appeared. Many times I had seen on the horizon a shimmering lake and sped up the car towards it only to realise that it was an optical illusion. Sometimes during the intense heat at the hottest part of the day I would lie on the ground and find a very faint breeze, warm but slightly pleasant. During the times the sun went down we formed a defence circle with guns pointing out, and we would gather for a chat with other of our troops. Quite often someone would ask, “Have you heard the latest blue light?” and then go on to tell about a rumour he heard that we would be going back home for some impossible reasons. All these rumours were called “blue lights” but I never knew why.
Exploring the desert in peacetime with plenty of rations and water and sleeping under the stars must be an exhilarating time, particularly when one has the knowledge that just a few hours away are the comforts of a fairly luxurious lifestyle. Living as a squaddie with never enough to eat or to drink was another matter, particularly with Krauts trying to kill you on the ground and Stukas dive bombing you from Benghazi and other towns.
The ordinary civilian in Cairo had a very hard life and the vast majority were treated as serfs for those better off. Living conditions were deplorable for these workers, but foreign workers with high salaries could live like kings. Cairo itself was an exciting place to be. During wartime dozens of dance halls opened up, although no one ever appeared to dance. The beer sold was named Stella (not Stella Artois), a very potent liquid. Local girls were paid to encourage customers to spend and spend, but the only soldiers capable of doing this were those who had spent some time up the blue and had back pay.
Brothels abounded, particularly in Berka Street. Dozens of crummy dilapidated houses were packed out with women of all ages, most off them looking quite ghastly after living in those places for years on end. Despite their awful looks there was no shortage of clients who would be seated in a corridor awaiting their turn. The street itself was filled with vendors of all kinds of merchandise, and pickpockets plying their trade were stationed every few yards. The centre of the town was a twenty-minute walk from the barracks. A tram ran along this distance always crammed full with dozens of Arabs hanging on to the sides. Now and again the driver would climb down from his cab and club a few off. If a serviceman was one of those clinging on the side, his wristwatch was certain to be snatched off and the thief would be away in a split second.
Within the camp we had the usual retinue of helpers, the Dhobi Wallah, for cleaning shirts and trousers. From the barracks there was one person who married an Arab girl, I forget his name but oddly enough not his appearance, a pale sad face and a demeanour that suggested he gave up too much. He had permission to stay every night at his wife’s flat. We all thought he was a lucky man, getting to live with a very attractive young wife in Heliopolis, just outside Cairo. What we did not know was that her entire family had moved in with them. Although a married soldier’s pay in those days was quite a lot compared to the local Felaheen, he could never afford to go out and had all he could do to take care of his wife’s family.
Out of compassion he was allowed to stay behind as an employee of the barracks when we left. The expression on his face as we pulled out told the whole story. almost imploring for some miracle to allow him to come with us and avoid his future -not a single night away from the large family, none of whom was able to speak English, and having to adapt to an alien way of life. We never saw him again and thought he gave up quite a bit since all he got in the end was possibly safety from action and the comfort of sleeping with an attractive girl every night. We don’t even know if he ever got back to England. Most of us felt that it was the biggest mistake of his life, taking on the responsibility of a wife and the seven other members of her family.
Major Pepys, our Squadron Leader, joined the Cherrypickers on their reconnaissance patrols up the blue. They were the first British Army regiment to do this type of work and they became very skilled at it. Major Pepys stayed with them for two weeks and got a lot of hints on how to survive in the intense heat with very little water and food. He told us that the big problem was the sand, soft and treacherous in most places and hard and covered with rocks in others. There were millions of flies and other insects. He hardly mentioned the Italian Army which even in those days were considered a comic opera lot. They outnumbered us many times over, but we did not consider them a big threat.
The Marmon Harrington cars would usually carry three men, occasionally four. Most of the food came in tins and we lived as small groups, cooking a bit of bully beef over a tin, sleeping on a sheet on the ground with a rolled up overcoat as a pillow. It was scorchingly hot during the day and icy cold during the night, and we knew to expect large pink tarantula spiders as well as snakes.
Gradually a sense of urgency came with the equipping of our cars, our improving technical skills, which included map reading and, more importantly, compass reading, and the stripping down and learning all we could about the guns, particularly the Breda guns taken from the Italians in earlier campaigns. At last we were told that soon we would be sent to relieve the Cherrypickers full time and patrol on the wire, that being the dividing line between Egypt and Libya.
Les James and I decided on one last visit to Cairo, just to look around and have some eggs and chips to finish off. Just outside Abbassia Barracks an Arab was selling packets of potato crisps. I bought a packet and an hour after eating them I became very ill and had to report sick the following morning. I had to sit on a wooden bench in the waiting room of the Medical Officers Surgery along with dozens who were already waiting. I felt myself becoming faint and fell forward face down on the rough concrete floor, pulling skin from my face and breaking my nose. When seen by Captain Leslie ten minutes later, he remarked that my sickness was probably due to drinking the night before. I was too dazed to reply that in those days I hardly drunk and apart from that never had the money for it. When the bruising went I could clearly see that my nose had been broken and was set off centre. By that time it was too late to do anything about it and it’s been out of joint ever since, making my face lopsided and with a lump on the bridge.
The regiment consisted of five squadrons, Regimental H.Q., then Squadrons A, B, C and D. Each of these had five troops, four cars to a troop. In the beginning the troop leader had radio contact with the Squadron Leader by means of a primitive type of radio. To speak one had to press on the handle, give the message and at say, “Over” at the end to allow for a reply. To end the call the last to speak would say, “Over and out.” Later on all the cars were kitted out with radios which made it a lot easier to converse -Troop Leader would be known as “Able Baker” and would call out Able Baker 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the appropriate car would reply. All could listen in.
It was in May 1941 when we were told to move out and take over the patrol duties of the th Hussars. We left Abbassia Barracks as a convoy and headed for the desert passing the Pyramids on the way. Stacked or hanging from the side of all the armoured vehicles was our gear. Each car had to take care of themselves with regard to the strictly rationed food and drink.
We learned the most effective way to start a fire was to cut an empty petrol tin in half, put in two or three inches of sand, douse it with petrol and ignite. On top would be placed a large mess tin containing the water which was then boiled and tea thrown in. The used tea leaves would always be dried and used again as it was in short supply. Drinking the tea was a big problem once poured into the mugs as flies dived in and would float dead on the surface, having to be scooped out before we could take a sip. I would count fifteen or more dead flies before scooping them out and drinking what was left, even downing the odd fly on many occasions. The taste was actually quite mild.
The petrol tins were a big problem to the whole of the Army on the desert because they were so thin splits came at the joints and the loss of fuel was enormous. The Germans did not have this problem as they had wonderful strong jerry cans holding four gallons which did not split and not a single drop was wasted. Whenever we could, we salvaged their cans. Later a similar type can was made by our own suppliers.
Basic food was tinned bully beef and very hard biscuits, 7 lb. tins of Olio margarine, and a similar size tin of apricot jam, both of which always melted into messy stuff during the day and solidified during the night. We found a way of eating the hard biscuits by placing them inside a spare sock and hammering them to a powder with a rock. With a very small amount of water the powder could be kneaded into a dough and stuffed back into the sock. By placing the stuffed sock on an empty bully beef tin in the mess tin holding an inch of water, they water could be brought to a boil and the steam would cook the dough. When cooled it would be sliced and covered with apricot jam, and of course the water would then be poured back in the can.
One of our officers, Lieutenant Whitworth, was a rather aloof man who barely engaged in small talk with his troop and had very little concern for his driver and wireless operator. In fact he was a very unpopular man throughout the Squadron. Trooper Machin, his driver, smashed one of the hard biscuits to crumbs and proceeded to make the dough but not having a spare sock he used one of his old dirty ones. When the bread was ready he sliced off a piece and passed it up the turret to Lt. Whitworth, who quickly devoured it and said it tasted so good he’d like another. Machin and the signaller passed their share up and the whole Squadron had a good laugh.
Now and again we came across nomadic Bedouins living with their goats in low slung black tents. I wondered what food they ate and how they got it. The water was hidden somewhere only they knew. Sometimes a spot would be marked on a map but we never found anything. The amount of debris left behind and the lorries and armoured cars shot up and abandoned provided them with huge amounts of salvage they could use. I have no doubt at all that at times they were questioned by either side for information on the opposition.
We finally reached the wire on the border. It was precisely that, wire - rusty and broken in parts - covering hundreds of miles of useless deserts sands and rocks and dehydrated shrubs which we now used as fuel. The wire was the dividing line between Libya and Egypt. As I said, we took over from the the Hussars who had been swanning around up here for several months and now departed for a rest at base in Cairo. Our duties were to patrol the area around Fort Maddalena which was unoccupied and situated right on the wire. On the other side were the Italians observing us. This went on day after day, each side watching the other’s movements and reporting back by radio to H.Q. who would then pass it on to Army Headquarters.
After two weeks we saw a lorry being driven very slowly toward the Fort and to our surprise instead of stopping, it continued on to our side. All our guns were trained on it and when it was within a hundred yards, a shot was put through the engine bringing it to a halt. Several Italian soldiers jumped out from the back with arms held up in surrender and with smiles on their faces. They walked towards us and suddenly another shot was fired from the car alongside ours and the youngest Italian dropped to the ground, killed outright, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his head. I turned and looked at the Corporal signal operator who fired the shot and asked him why he did it. He replied that he thought he saw a movement at the back of the lorry, though no one else did. I was so angry and shocked I had to restrain myself from hitting him. He never forgot my anger and a year or so later he attempted to beat me up whilst I was lying down defenceless recovering from a facial injury. He survived the war and joined the Fire Service in Shrewsbury, living into his eightieth year. The Italians had deserted and came to surrender. Maybe they had heard of the conditions of Italian prisoners of war at that time. All were taken to Palestine and put in large camps where they were well fed and had a continuous supply of water.
We started to probe through the wire into territory occupied by the Italians. Many times we fired on them and got chased away. Now and again an aircraft came over us and dropped the odd bomb, most of which missed. When we heard them coming we would dive under our cars, all except one fellow, an old reservist from the 1930’s named Baker. When his time on the reserve was up he signed on for another six. This gave him an income of a shilling a day extra. When war broke out he was recalled and sent out to his old regiment. He then was around thirty-eight years of age when most of us were eighteen to twenty-three years, so he was the odd man out.
It seems he had acute hearing and when he sensed the aircraft coming he would run away from the cars. Two minutes later the rest of us could hear the drone of the engines from approaching aircraft. He would come back to our area when all was clear. One day he could be seen on the move, and sure enough the planes came and dropped their load. They missed all the cars and fell slap bang in the area where he had stopped, killing him outright. No trace of him was found, the first of our Squadron to die.
One morning we heard an approaching aircraft with a different sound and suddenly we could see a huge plane flying very low. When it got near I could clearly see its enemy markings and it looked as though the sides of the plane were corrugated. When it was just in my sights I fired a full tray of explosive shells from the Breda gun and watched them all explode as they hit. The plane carried on a bit but then started dropping and finally it crashed. Later I learnt than when it was over the squadron next to ours about a mile away, their Breda car in Sergeant Brooks’ charge fired one shot and their gun jammed, but he claimed the hit. While I was peppering the plane I did see a discharge of smoke, but my gun did the trick. I thought at the time that Brooks had a diabolical nerve! And to top it all he got the medal and I never got a mention. I learnt later the plane was called a Savoy or similar sounding version.
Living in close proximity with dozens of others and sharing the same troubles and hardships tends to bond most troops. Three or four to a car twenty-four hours a day for months on end is not easy for some, but most of us liked it. We all shared the same food and took our turn cooking it, which was fairly easy as the rations were the same every day. We were always hungry and would eat anything, however dirty or old, and with one cup of water a day, we really lived like rats. Starving most of the time, we longed for the sun to set giving some relief from the terrible heat.
Within our Squadron many men had acquired nicknames that remained with them throughout their service. Even those who were discharged in the early 1930's and were recalled to the colours on the outbreak of war found that their names had stuck. Here are a few that I recall, with a brief explanation of some of the weird ones:
Dusty Doust - olive complexion and always looked in need of
Dumpy Dover - short and plump ex-band Sergeant.
Dinty Damon - big and plump.
Hassan Grout - looked Arabic and was always scruffy.
Shady Crook – a rather quiet fellow. All deals were shady; his moniker was just a pun on his name, Brady Cook.
Oddlegs Gauntley - both his legs bent in the same direction.
Civvie Boot Hancock - complained of aching feet throughout his six years of service in India; he was granted permission to wear civilian soft boots in the last six months.
Rainbow Williams - joined us on the desert wearing two rows of Police Medals.
Maestro Roberts – had a large handlebar moustache and a very loud voice.
Swede Barratt – a farmer lad from Norfolk.
Father Marsh – had a round, monk-looking face and was bald in the centre of his head.
Goosie Gosling – a pun on his name, Goose.
Dixie Lewis - dixie was another name for a mess tin; his was stolen.
PopVeriod - in charge of the ration wagon; he looked old to us but died aged 34 years in Denmark after the war had ended.
Lofty Clayton – very tall and thin.
Ted, Triggs, Noggy, Dickie Bird
Some others were Foo Shepherd, Bubbly Jones, Dizzy Peek, Darkie Bradley, Doughy Baker, Tich Bailey, Tapper Rapkin, Spud Brennan, Chalky White, Mollie Morgan, Agony Paine. Spanky Jennings, Nippy Edwards, Noggy Warne, Smoky Grover, Hambone Russell, and Whisky James. Surnames such as Smith and Jones would have the last two Army service numbers added, for instance Jones 8 or Smith 45, saving a lot of misunderstanding when names were called out.
Oddlegs was a peculiar little man. He had completed his seven
years’ service in 1937 and then had to serve five years on the reserve
list. He went back to his old job in a factory and on the outbreak of the
war was called up immediately and sent to Palestine. He was then given his
old rank of Sergeant but did not have a great deal of presence with his peculiar
shaped legs and the perpetual innocent look on his face of a treasured dog
gazing up to his master yearning to be liked. He was very lacking in leadership
qualities as well as charisma.
Our troop was comprised of four armoured Marmon Harington armoured cars. In the lead car was the 2nd Lieutenant, the second car, Troop Sergeant and so on down the line. Oddlegs was terrified with making a mistake and anything going wrong caused him to call out, “It weren’t me Sir.” His map reading was appalling. One day whilst out on patrol we lost our way and had no idea how to get back to the remainder of the Squadron. Darkness was approaching and we knew we were pretty near to the German front line. The maps themselves showed very little, a few dots here and there hundreds of miles apart.
The situation was getting desperate. All the cars stopped and Oddlegs was called over to the lead car. A map was spread on the bonnet and Oddlegs was asked where we were. Studying the map and showing a bemused and terrified look before us all, he spread his hand and covered the whole area of the map and declared, “I think we are somewhere here Sir.” We all collapsed with laughter as the spread he covered was in the region of four thousand square miles. I had to butt in then and suggest that we look to the setting sun and head southwest, which would take us away from the Germans, and we would be bound to meet up with our own. Oddlegs said that was what he meant. Meeting up with the Squadron leader later, he said, “I were right, weren’t I Sir.”
It seemed that with very few exceptions the troops were led by junior officers of the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, who had been allocated this rank purely on education qualifications. On the outbreak of war the call up had great urgency and hundreds of thousands of men were enrolled. Thus ranks were doled out on the basis of education. Public school and grammar school men were automatically considered to be officer material but common sense should have suggested that this was not the way to be going about matters as serious as war. Although we had some many good officers, such as Lord Rocksavage and later the Earl of Cholmondely, the two Hamilton-Russell brothers, and Major Pepys, most were appalling.
The Squadron Sergeant Major was named Stephenson, who by then
he had served over twenty years as a bandsman. I don’t know the instrument
he played, but improvement in playing was rewarded by an increase in rank,
enabling the Bandmaster to give an increase in pay for the individual concerned.
At the outbreak of war many bandsmen served as ordinary soldiers but as Stephenson
then had the rank of Sergeant, one step up made him a Squadron Sergeant Major,
a very good rank. He walked awkwardly, not helped by flat feet. But the big
problem was that he had no experience of soldiering and was particularly conscious
of his shortcomings. As most of his Sergeants and other NCOs were fairly tough,
he was like a fish out of water. We were talking on one occasion about Army
pay and he proudly said, “Just think - every day I am out here they
are paying me 15 shillings a day (75p) and it’s all mounting up for
me” I could hardly believe my ears as at the time he had not seen his
wife and children for four years. We were both short of food and water, were
slap bang in the middle of Libya with the Krauts a mile or so away, and there
he was counting up his savings. He survived the war and probably took his
discharge and the pension that went with 21 years service.
Sergeant Major Stephenson had some odd habits. One, which we all found irritating, was his presence at the short arm inspections when we all had to display our penis following a few days’ leave in Cairo. Such leave could be given after about eight months up the blue. The brothels in Cairo were awful places and lots of lads picked up a dose of V.D. These inspections entailed the entire Squadron being paraded in front of the Medical Officer and each man would approach the M.O. and drop his trousers to expose his penis for examination. Stevenson would stand directly behind the M.O., clearly relishing the exhibition.
Many of those in our Squadron made an impact on me one way or another. From time to time reinforcements came arrived. Stepping down from a truck one day came a trooper wearing a chest full of medals of extraordinary colours. His name was Harry Eastcote Williams. Later on I got the idea that Harry was in fact Harry Williams and the double-barrel bit sounded better in his occupation as a manager in some office at Selfridges. He was aged in the mid-thirties and had a very confident manner. He wore more medals than any officer in the regiment and when questioned, he described them as police medals given for attendance at the various functions he had attended as a Special Constable during the 1930’s such as a Jubilee or a Coronation. None had anything to do with the war.
Williams was quite a friendly chap and I liked him for his maturity, good humour and reliability. Three years later when we were on our way back to England from the Italian front he asked me whether I could help him get another stripe as he had at that time just the one of a Lance Corporal. He said that he would be embarrassed to visit his former employers with such a low rank. I recommended him for promotion and he got the extra stripe before we docked. His nickname remained the same, “Rainbow Williams.” After the war ended I had difficulty getting a job. Calling on him one day during the summer of 94 he was in a large pleasant office with a secretary and it turned out that his firm had paid him throughout the war. I never met him again.
Some of the origins of the peculiar nicknames are rather obscure but Agony Paine was the most ironic. He was a base wallah left behind while we were all up the blue. His job was to see to all the affairs of the regiment whilst we were away, quite a good job - to be based in Cairo with plenty of water and food and with a rank of Sergeant to take care of the money side. I don’t think he ever heard a gun fired, but being in the same country as the remainder of the regiment entitled him to a full quota of medals. In war, many things got topsy-turvy.
The same irony applied to Shady Crook, a very quiet and close man who earned a few extra “ackers” by doing the odd tailoring job. On our rare visits to Cairo prior to going up the blue we would see him crouched over a piece of cloth, stitching away.
Another trooper whose name I cannot remember would never go out or spend any money. He specialised in making leather purses and diligently writing home to his wife week after week. He spent his time sewing leather goods while seated on his bed, pulling a cord through the thick leather. One time we all returned to our barracks after a night in Cairo and he was not in the room, this at 11pm. We learnt the awful news that while pulling the cord through the leather, the cord snapped and the strong needle shot up straight into his eye. We all felt very sorry for him.