A DESERT RAT'S STORY
SYRIA & EGYPT
THE FREE FRENCH
With the capitulation of France during 1940, General de Gaulle
became an exile in England and formed the Free French forces. Those remaining
loyal to the Axis-backed French government were known as the Vichy forces.
The Vichy French hated the Brits. A little earlier we had sunk their fleet
at Dakar to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans. As a consequence
they appeared to have staked their future by siding with their former enemies,
the Germans, who were now occupying their homeland.
Many Vichy forces were in Syria, where an Allied invasion was planned in which the Royals took part. B Squadron left Abbassia in May 94 and reached the Syrian border days later. Our A Squadron were pulled out of the desert to join them, and we crossed into Syria on June 8th with armoured cars in the lead. The enemy were heavily armed with anti-tank guns and deadly 75mm field guns. Most of the time we could not get off the roads, which were lined with trees and vegetation concealing the enemy and making us sitting ducks. Armoured cars were at a disadvantage in this terrain and we suffered many losses.
Australian troops were at full force in Syria as were the Free French. The Vichy troops were very heavily armed and despite the fact that they had been our Allies a year or so earlier, they fought viciously against us and even against their own countrymen. The war turned our way when Damascus was taken by our forces. Several of the Royals’cars took part in this. We operated with the Free French forces on many occasions and at one time A Squadron covered the advance on Homs. It was there that Lord Rocksavage and a Sapper officer blew up the Homs-Baalbeck railway line. On his return, however, was told that the Franco-German Armistice had been signed on June 22 and the bridge was urgently needed, so back the Sappers went to repair it.
News of the Armistice may not have been circulated fully and the Vichy forces caused many injuries to our troops by opening fire on us, knocking out several cars, even though some were showing white surrender flags, and shooting at us as we approached. We returned to the area the following days, put their tanks and guns out of action and took the prisoners back to Homs. We were then given the job of patrolling the Turkish border and made contact with many Turks who seemed to us to be very friendly and likeable people. The Arabs put on some large feasts for us with a whole goat cooked, and we sat around on our rumps and devoured the pieces of meat floating in tomatoes and other vegetables. We reached in with chapattis and scooped out absolutely delicious morsels. After the muck we had been eating on the desert, that was a terrific treat.
Many times we were greeted with baskets of eggs and chickens for which we were expected to barter something in return. The Arabs wanted tea, tobacco and empty petrol tins and would squat down and begin the business with one of us, normally with the encouragement of their supporters. Offers would be made by either side. The going rate for an empty petrol tin was twenty eggs. Tea was in great demand but we did not have much, so a high price was always extracted after a long contest. Groans at low offers and various quips not understood by either side made it hilarious and was enjoyed by all. The Arabs loved to deal and if it was protracted, so much the better. Furthermore, they liked us.
Syria is a beautiful country with a history well known for over three thousand years. Many towns had huge castles built hundreds of years ago, all with very thick walls still standing after numerous battles over the centuries. The Syrian French did not like our presence and showed it in many ways. They were still loyal to the Vichy government. Their officers had instructed their troops not to show any sign of friendship to British troops. In fact, one their men was put on a charge for speaking to a British soldier.
We occupied ourselves with patrols around the countryside and saw a huge amount of animals, including gazelles, sand grouse and ducks. Some of the officers started to enjoy themselves by shooting game and our food got better when other ranks had a go. I remember seeing a herd of gazelle some distance away and several of us took out our rifles to bring one down as we heard the meat was great. The noise alerted the animals and they started to leap away, looking very graceful. I felt ashamed when we dropped one, particularly when we collected it. This feeling left me when I realised that I had been eating meat all my life, it was just that the animal at close quarters looked so appealing.
To a certain extent the Armistice was very messy. The enemy was allowed to stay as an army and kept all their paraphernalia with their own rules. They had the option of repatriation or enrolment in our forces but not many took up this offer. Although we remained in Syria for another two months, we frequently met up with them and they still showed hostility to us, the officers being extremely arrogant.
Vichy forces took advantage of an opportunity to cause the deaths of several men by firing after the Armistice, but we gave them the benefit of the doubt, thinking that they may not have heard about it although it must be said that most other combatants had full knowledge of the end of the war in Europe. As fighters, the Vichy forces were not in the same class as the Germans or the Free French, and they were considered a treacherous lot. They were staunchly Vichy and very much pro-German, and they resented the British troops as we continued to fight despite the surrender of the French government. We had a real battle near Homs and again lost several cars. When the Armistice was called and we entered Aleppo as the victorious troops, the locals welcomed us warmly despite the fact that French was their language and the whole culture was French orientated.
For a while we settled in a small town called Bab, camping outside the town until the Vichy troops vacated the barracks in Aleppo. After a week or so we moved in to discover that all the rooms were covered in shit and urine. We called in the fire brigade to hose the whole lot down. The mess was so awful their officers must have known about it. Nothing was very civilised about the French at that time. The rooms were alive with mosquitoes and after just one week, I again went down with another very bad attack of malaria and was carted off to hospital early the following morning. It took me two weeks to shake it off and in the meantime I lost over a stone in weight.
The first person I saw on my return to Aleppo was Major Pepys, who on seeing the state I was in asked what was wrong with me. I replied that I had just been discharged from hospital suffering from malaria. He looked shocked but more so when I said that this had been my fourth dose. He then seemed absolutely shattered and asked what type of infection I had. On getting the reply, “B.T. Malaria,” he said, “Thank God for that, I thought you said Venereal” and we both had a good laugh.
Les James, ever seeking to keep well away from any danger or work, dodged the column and got himself a job of taking the laundry into town each day, having made a connection with the local cleaners. He was getting a backhander from the cleaner and appeared to be doing very well. He drove an open 5 cwt. truck with the laundry in the back. On one occasion he was stopped at the gate by the Regimental Sergeant Major asking to see under the covering which, when removed, showed several bottles of whisky stolen from the Sergeants’ mess. Dixie had noticed the stock was going down at a faster rate than it could be drunk and had worked it out that it was an inside job. It was then “Left right, left right” straight into the guardroom cells where he stayed for the next fourteen days. Thereafter Les was known as “Whisky James.” Even today, over ninety years old and living in Denmark, that is still his moniker.
Sports and swimming competitions were organised, and it was then that I met Ron McBride for the first time. He came to the regiment as a Sergeant with the Signal Corps and remained with us and became a Royal Dragoon for the remainder of the war. He was very tall, had wavy brown hair and was well spoken. A very good athlete, he excelled at the high jump. Our paths crossed many times later, and we have been close friends throughout the year. After the war we both married Danish girls and at one time lived near each other in Streatham.
Life was very pleasant in Aleppo, which was an interesting town with no shortage of food, drink or cabarets and even the odd cinema here and there. It was very hot, but at least we could get water from a tap, and even better, stroll around in safety.
In November 1941 news came that the Germans were attacking in great force on the desert and our forces were being beaten back to Egypt. We had lost a huge amount of tanks and guns, and we were ordered back to Egypt at once.
BACK UP THE BLUE
We left Aleppo for the 2 to 4 hour trip and drove back at great
speed but this resulted in the loss of some our cars, which overturned on
the way. We stopped overnight in Cairo and were all in a bit of a mess by
the time we reached it. The cars were clapped out and so were we. We all dossed
down in Abbassia Barracks and after a few hours’ rest the announcement
came that we would leave sharp the following morning at 10am. In the meantime,
a pass to Cairo was issued for all of us for the evening and we each got a
large sum in back pay.
About a hundred of us piled into taxis and headed for the town centre. First of all, we had a huge meal and a few Stella beers. The food was always the same wherever we went -egg, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, chips -all fried and served with a few slices of fried bread.
Then we were off to one of the so-called cabarets. The one we picked that night was the Regal, quite a happy place. Vicki, Yvonne and many more girls, all good looking but hard as nails, encouraged visitors to drink up quickly. I cannot recall ever seeing an actual cabaret as the places were always packed with troops from all types of regiments and countries. Many base Wallahs, most of whom resented the attention given by the girls to front line troops, caused fights to break out fairly frequently, and sometimes the girls would stir it up for someone who had slighted them. It was an unreal but fascinating atmosphere.
That night I was chatting to a couple of pals about nothing in particular and after a while got up to go to the other side of the room. Suddenly I got struck across the back and turned to see Spanky Jennings with the remains of the chair in his hands, the rest of it on the floor. Spanky was absolutely plastered he stood there, all 5’ 4” of him, glaring at me, or at least I thought so. I walked towards Spanky but as I got near his legs gave way and he dropped to the floor. The pain in my back was pretty grim and I realised that Spanky had done some damage to my ribs. Vicki had been stirring it up against me over some slight, probably not paying her enough attention.
On being inspected at parade the following morning, the officer saw a sorry sight as over half the squadron had damaged features. I ended up in a Field Hospital the other side of Mersa Matruh with three broken ribs. At the same time I had a wisdom tooth taken out as my jaw seemed to lock together. During all this time I thought of the treatment I would give to Spanky when I caught up with him again.
On the same night Sergeant Ernie Cook was eating a meal in a cafe reserved for rank of Sergeant and above when he was struck just as he raised a forkful of food to his mouth. The prongs pierced the skin of his upper lip and the following morning it had swollen to twice the size. Ernie got over that bit of trouble a few weeks later with just a small scar. The sad part of Ernie Cook’s story came over a year later in Italy. We slept on the ground with our heads towards the wheels. A violent storm broke out with thunder and lightning. Ernie`s car was struck by lightning and he was permanently blinded. We left him in hospital and I saw him next in England in 94 . Walking between two friends, he was being guided into the room where we were having a regimental reunion. He was smiling happily to be with his old pals again, but that was the last time I saw him.
I caught up with the Squadron two days later and we were in continuous action after that. The episodes in Cairo were forgotten. Strangely enough, for us the tough life and constant danger had more appeal, although no one denied that a spell of leave in Cairo or Alexandria now and again was very welcome.
We were on patrol soon after I arrived. Our cars were faster now, but the problem was the terrain – the usual soft sand as well as hard and rocky ground in other areas. The sand caused us to have to regularly dig out our cars.
It seemed that there were more flies than ever and at the same time less food and brackish water. The rations had to come a long way to get to us but always nearby were the tarantula spiders and scorpions, the former had soft pink bodies and were very vicious.
Another peculiar insect was a certain type of beetle called a dung, or shit, beetle. They were more than two inches in length and would latch on to a piece of dung with their strong rear legs and drive it backwards. As the dung came up against an obstacle such as a stone, the beetle would bang away at it until it realised that it could circle around. Noticing this, we would deliberately place stones or twigs in its path but the beetle would never give up. Finally it would reach the pile of dung being built up by several others, and sometimes we’d see fifty or so perfectly formed round balls an inch across, all with a covering of sand, which is what the beetles lived on.
We knew for some while that our 7th Armoured Brigade, part of the 8th Army, were known as the Desert Rats, no doubt because of the way we had been forced to live, scrounging for the odd bit of food and remaining unwashed for months on end. We first heard the name on the radio whilst up the blue and then on many subsequent occasions heard how much the German Afrika Corps Commander General Rommel admired the fighting qualities of the 8th Army Desert Rats.
It became cold as the sun went down and with overcoats on we would gather around Pop Veriod`s ration truck. He had an old wireless in the back and we would stretch out a piece of wire at least 50 feet long; very faintly we could hear Vera Lynn singing the lyrics, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where and don’t know when” and other favourite songs. Then it was back to our cars, scooping out some sand, putting a groundsheet down and with the overcoat rolled up as a pillow getting in some sleep. If it rained it was far better to sleep without the groundsheet to let the sand soak in the water, but I can only recall rain at night on two or three occasions.
My regular driver was taken sick and would be off for a few days in the rear echelon so I had a replacement driver, Jack Conway, who was an old reservist and an ex-boxer. From the look of his battered face he had taken some punishment in his time. He was tough looking but bone idle, physically soft and cowardly, and I had to watch him all the time.
Troop Leaders were called together and were told to prepare to head South after darkness, swing upwards early the following morning, and report on the strength of the opposition. It sounded exciting and as we were entering virgin ground, not a great risk. I gave the news to the troop and we all got ready. With an hour to go Jack said he could not get the car going and that it had developed a major fault. I noticed that my radio operator averted his eyes at this announcement and I became suspicious. Without saying anything I walked away and spoke to George Tarry, our squadron mechanic, who he came back with me to the car. We lifted up the bonnet and found the cause of the trouble - some wires had been disconnected. I got another driver to take Jack`s place.
Early the next morning we drove over a land mine and the rear offside wheel was blown off. German tanks and cars were chasing us and firing continuously. I got another wound from a shell hitting the side of our car. A metal splinter tore into the flesh of my right thigh leaving quite a deep cavity with blood pouring down my leg. I grabbed my revolver and found that was soaked in blood. The smoke from the mine damage was giving our position away and we had to abandon the car. I prepared to bail out, yelling down to our driver to do the same, and each of us grabbed whatever we could hold in the few seconds available. We dropped over the side of the car and at once were fired upon, bullets hitting the side of our now shattered car. Another car from our troop pulled alongside and we piled aboard and got away as fast as we could. As dusk came we laagered together and counted our losses - four armoured cars and a supply vehicle, three others wounded apart from myself.
After inspecting my thigh and cleaning the long gash, the M.O. pulled the flesh together with a wide piece of thick sticking tape and said, “Back you go.” I must say I was expecting a couple of days’ break but those things didn’t happen in Cavalry Regiments. It was the same old story, get back in the saddle as quickly as possible after a fall.
Again a car was found for me and I still had my old crew. We were on patrol soon after. The abundant dehydrated shrubs, about a foot to two feet high, caused the cars to rock from side to side. This continuous motion knocked off pieces of exposed flesh that rapidly turned into painful desert sores which went very deep and lasted for months. The only treatment I got when I was able to get to the M.O. was very painful, involving a pointed pair of pliers with which he would yank off the scab, bringing a load of flesh with it, but it did the trick. I have one of the scars to this very day.
News came that we were to get a three-day break somewhere on the coast near Mersa Mahtru, a place we had had a few skirmishes with the Italians and the Krauts. There was nothing there except a lot of glorious water to swim in.
A trooper fresh from England, Benny Thirkill, came to my car as a wireless operator. Being new to it all, he knew nothing and so far had seen no action. We both sat on the turret of the car on which was mounted a heavy machine gun. For security this was pulled down by the butt and held on a strong spring hooked to the turret ledge. To release the gun we would pull down hard, unhook, raise and fire, the whole process taking two seconds. Thirkill persistently played around with the clip on the spring and was told to stop many times. He continued so much that at one point I turned my head towards him to yell at him to behave just as he released the spring, the butt shot up and smashed into my face, tearing the flesh on my upper lip and loosening my teeth.
We arrived on the coast for our break, and a makeshift canteen was erected so the lads could gather for a natter and a bottle of beer as a special treat. But the M.O. put five stitches in my lip and my face was so swollen and painful I could barely speak, so most of my time was spent lying down. I missed it all and spent my three days and nights sharing a tent with sixteen other members of our troop. I shifted Thirkill to another car as soon as I recovered. In fact it turned out that I got more injuries from my own side than I ever did from the Germans or Italians!
After the break we were ordered up the blue. Halfway to our destination I dropped off at a Field Dressing Station to have my stitches removed. What with all the mishaps I was very choked with the whole war. One day drifted into another and weeks and months went by. Time was not important any more. It was around this time I was called to the Squadron Leader’s car and told the Red Cross has a request from Mum and Dad to enquire whether all was well with me, not having heard for almost two years. At that time U boats controlled most of the Mediterranean and we lost hundreds of ships. The longer route via Cape Town was not quite so bad, but many ships with mail went down to the bottom. A message went back to reassure my parents, but when I finally arrived home I was told Mum and Dad had sent me a parcel every month containing a cake and other goodies, none of which ever arrived. My hard up Mum and Dad handed over money to suppliers for months on end. Apart from the ships, mail had to be transported from depot to depot and car to car over hundreds of miles, so there was no chance at all of anything reaching me. The temptation was too much for the large number of drivers delivering goods to forward front line regiments. I cannot recall a single man receiving a carton of cigarettes sent from England.
On a previous campaign a large number of British and Australian troops became trapped in Tobruk, and they held out against every onslaught from the Germans. Such was the nature of the desert terrain that battles were fought over huge areas, and encirclement and ventures behind enemy lines was considered quite normal. Columns of cars, tanks and lorries all looked the same from a distance, and sometimes the Krauts would use our abandoned cars which made it very confusing. However a good clue would be that most German columns were usually encircled by armed motor cyclists and we seldom used them in this manner.
The enemy launched a huge attack on our front and we fell back. Tobruk fell and suddenly the withdrawal became a full flap, a stampede with cars, lorries and tank transporters in full flight. After forty or so miles we came upon one of our NAAFI supply depots and yelled out to those inside to get out with the goods, but some foolish manager said he could not do so without authority. After a short while the Germans came upon them and I presume the whole lot of our rare supplies were enjoyed by enemy.
Month after month we seemed to advance a hundred miles and then get beaten back -it was sickening. Generals good and bad came and went. Wavell was good when beating the Italians with their poor equipment, but after a stint with us he was sent to a command in India. Auchinleck came in July of 1941 but was gone by the next year. One promising General, named Gott, sadly was killed in an air crash before taking over from The Auk. But in fact, the main trouble was our totally inadequate armour, small guns and thin armour plating. On patrol one day I came across the body of a huge man lying on his back dressed in an Afrika Korps uniform, show no sign of injury. Flies were not yet around in great numbers, so he could not have been there long. Ginger hair, height I guessed at 6' 4". We rolled him over and then I noticed a slight wound at the back of his head, less than a half inch wide. He must have been killed by a very small piece of shrapnel which if it had struck his jacket would probably have just made a tear. It made me think about how precarious our lives were, just a half inch away and he would have been alive.
We took Benghazi and went swanning along for about fifty miles and laargered in for the night when it became very dark. After a short while we heard the clank of tanks approaching, then the noise became deafening. The sky was so black, we saw nothing. They pulled to a halt not far away from us, switched off the engines and then we heard voices, so many that we figured they must be a large force. Major Pepys crept out on all fours to investigate, and on his return he said that the Germans had over ten tanks and additional vehicles and were just a hundred yards away. Enroute he saw a soldier crouched down answering the call of nature. When asked whether he had silently put him out of action, he replied, “It was not the done thing to take advantage of any man in that position.”
We were all given the precise time to move off, synchronised our watches, and were given the compass reading of the direction to take. I was asked to bring up the rear of one of the columns, being watchful of the car ahead of me driven by Major Pepys’ batman, Trooper Ost. Spot on the second stipulated, all the cars started up with a terrific roar, it was deafening. We all moved at a quick pace heading in the same direction. In seconds sand was thrown up in huge quantities and it was impossible to keep to a line. We kept going but by a mile or so we could hear movement to our rear, not from tanks but by armoured cars chasing us.
Many of our cars slowed down, no doubt to try to get on the correct route given. By now German cars and ours became mixed up and it was pure bedlam. I saw most of my column streaking away, billowing soft sand behind and obliterating my view within a few seconds. Vic Merry and I were in the turret peering ahead into the darkness and suddenly our car was struck on the side by another vehicle which tore off the Red Cross stretcher that I had patched up and used as a bed. I yelled down to Prescott, our driver, to stop. I felt very annoyed and turned my head to tear the culprit off a strip but as I did so, an armoured car similar to mine pulled alongside us and in seconds a German in the turret was screaming at us, “Hände hoch.” He looked fat in the face and wore a forage cap with a black, red and white button in the centre. Vic Merry and myself complied and stood in our turret with our arms raised above our heads. He waved his revolver at us and fired a shot hitting our turret, then ordered us to get down to the ground. We clambered down, leaving Trooper Prescott inside with the engine still running, unaware of what was going on due to the noise above him.
The clatter from machine guns from both sides was deafening and it was impossible to distinguish who was firing on whom. The Kraut in the car kept his gun trained on us, our cars were just a few yards apart. The firing went on and we could clearly see that the fat man in the turret was trying to manoeuvre a larger gun to our direction. It jammed again and again and it would not budge. My thoughts were that he may have wanted to put a shell into our turret or engine, or on the other hand, Vic and myself would get shot. I shouted to Vic, “Let’s jump for it” and then screamed out, “Now.” We sprang onto our turret with both of us going inside head first yelling to Prescott to put his foot down fast. The whole of my front legs were stripped of flesh but I felt no pain. I don’t know what Prescott thought while we were standing outside as it was impossible for him to hear, but thanked our luck that he did not panic and turn the engine off. We weaved in and out of the cars ahead knowing they were German. A couple of shells came our way and one hit the side of the car but did not penetrate, it just rocked our car from side to side.
As we were in their range, I decided to have a crack at them and swung our gun turret around. I quickly fired several shots from my two pounder gun. With all the sand being churned up I had poor visibility, but I saw our shells exploding on the side of one of their armoured cars so I got to claim a hit. I hoped it was the one occupied by the fat German. As dawn came we saw in the distance one of the Royals armoured cars with a C Squadron Sergeant, Jim Laycock, sitting on top of the turret. Apparently we had already been reported as missing. He was able to get through to get the map reference of A Squadron and we were on our way back to Squadron Headquarters.
We finally caught up with our Squadron and were told that Major Pepys’ truck was missing. Pepys questioned us about when we last saw it. Although he was disappointed at losing his batman and his gear, he made the point of congratulating us on getting back unscathed. Trooper Ost was killed that night, never having fired a shot.
The nights now were awful -bitter cold and at all times dangerous, and hunger and extreme tiredness were always with us. One pitch black night we were picking our way through a mine field when I heard two explosions from cars that had the bad luck to hit a mine. I just lay on the floor of our car so tired the thought came into my mind that if we were killed the tiredness would go. Then dawn broke and the world looked wonderful again.
We had so many withdrawals, or flaps as we knew them, most caused by our inferior equipment. The flap that occurred in the town of Msus is fresh in my mind. It was the first of the three times my car was shot away from me. The Germans had launched a surprise heavy attack against our entire division, so heavy the onslaught and so unexpected that most of our tanks were shot away. Our front broke and a desperate withdrawal began which steadily got out of hand and panic took its place. We could see our tanks left behind in flames. We Royals were constantly overtaken by speedier vehicles of all sorts. I was in the turret and ahead of me I saw the 5cwt. truck being driven by Trooper Emmett. Our car came to a grinding halt after a huge explosion from a shell hit our front axle. I saw Emmett and another co-driver stop their car and run towards some dehydrated shrubs and hide behind them. Armoured cars were streaming past and I leapt onto the side of one and clung to a hook hanging from the side. Behind me I saw that Frankie Gasson, our driver, had done the same together with the radio operator. After a mile or so the cars came to a halt and we dropped off, noting that most of the toes of our boots had been ripped off.
Our Squadron regrouped and Mollie Morgan, our S.S.M. at the time, took me back to see my car. We found the car with bonnet buried deep in the sand, disabled the Breda gun and got most of our gear together. There was no sign of the 5cwt. truck. Being undamaged, it was probably now being used by the Krauts, the two Squaddies no doubt prisoners.
A few days later we were back with another car and the usual routine - up at first light, bitterly cold, and the first brew up, plenty of dew for a short while until the sun rose, then the almost unbearable. We searched for the enemy the whole time, that being our task. On flat ground map reading was easy; I would take a reading, move off on it, stop every mile to check the reading and move on. Compass reading on the desert was most important as there were no landmarks. Tapper Rapkin came a cropper once though. At the time he was a corporal leading five cars in the front of a V formation, throwing up a lot of sand and muck to those in the rear. We could not see ahead and had to stop. When the sand settled, we saw Tapper streaking away from us, but darkness came and we settled in the car for the night. Nick Carte, the corporal in charge of our car, walked off in search of Tapper. Later we found Carte had walked in a complete circle and was never more than three hundred yards away.
The following day search parties came for us and around midday
we were found and directed back to the remainder of the Squadron. Tapper got
a big rollicking over this but kept his stripes. Later when all the cars were
fitted with radios this kind of thing stopped occurring. Tapper signed on
after the war ended and became the Regimental Sergeant Major.
We never found water up the blue although we know some must have been there - how else could the Bedouin survive? Occasionally we came across a dried up well. Once I recall dredging up some liquid so filthy that no sane person would risk drinking it. The real treat would be to find an abandoned German or Italian truck or car. Sometimes we would find soft cheese in tubes or small sardines in cans and other delights. We noticed these were made in the countries they had occupied in Europe, now working full pelt to service their former enemy in his efforts to get control of Suez, which would practically cut our supply line in half and give them a huge advantage over us. Most of the time we struggled on with our hard biscuits, Olio margarine which always melted to oil, seven- pound tins of jam and not much else apart from the everlasting bully beef. By this time many of us thought we would never see England again .
I must interrupt myself to mentionTrooper Emmett as I had often wondered what happened to him after the debacle with his 5cwt. truck. I believe he enrolled before the war about 1938 with many others, probably during a time of high unemployment, with the prospect of an exciting life overseas as a peacetime soldier, quite a good life for a young lad.
After the war, some time during 1958 I was a representative for a Hatton Garden diamond merchant who was anxious to expand throughout the provinces. I decided to visit Folkestone to see whether some outlets for our stock could be found. Walking down High Street and heading straight for me came Emmett not looking a day older than when I last saw him up the blue. After a brief hello to each other he got straight to the point and said that he was captured during that flap and spent the whole of the remaining part of the war in prison camps. He also wondered why I did not stop to pick him up as he left his truck. No doubt this had been on his mind for some time when he went from the camp in Italy and then on to Germany.
I took him to a coffee shop nearby to give him some details of my own position and told him that we had returned with S.S.M. Morgan and another car several hours later and had not seen his truck but located the small clump of dehydrated shrubs he had hidden behind. Emmett was amazed to learn this and for a while spoke very little, probably thinking that all those years in the camps could have been avoided if he had taken the same action as we did. It put his mind at rest on one point but another was put in its place – he could have avoided those wasted years if he had not panicked and run away and his truck could have saved us all.
Back to wartime life. One day while we were near the coast we came across cactus bush and on the edge of each thick leaf were buds which had sharp and very thin spikes. We found that by rolling these on the ground they could be picked up and cut open and inside was a small tender pink and moist substance which we could scoop out and eat. It was absolutely delicious but very limited in quantity, no more than a teaspoon full out of the whole bush.
Sometimes we saw extraordinary sights up the blue, apart from burnt out tanks and armoured cars. The dead were buried as soon as possible after an engagement, friend and foe were treated alike. On one particular occasion we saw a mile ahead what appeared to be a coach and on getting nearer we could see that it was not damaged. Keeping our guns trained on it and carrying revolvers, we entered the vehicle and found that there were a total of six bunks along both the sides and the floor was littered with hundreds of contraceptives and magazines. It was an abandoned Italian travelling brothel! No wonder the Eyeties surrendered so easily. As we were forty miles from the coast, we assumed that the brothel had been travelling with a regiment and had been hastily abandoned during one of our attacks.
Our cars now were getting knocked about, the soft sand was miles back and we were on rocky ground. Mile after mile was covered with small petrified shrubs which sent the cars crashing from side to side. It was always a relief when night came and we could stop over. My car kept breaking down and finally we struck a small landmine and it had to be abandoned. George Tarry, our top mechanic, spent hours stripping it down of all spare parts to use for repairing other cars as we still had not got the replacement cars we were promised. Most of the Marmon Harringtons were on their last legs though they did serve us very well whilst we had them.
Now we were equipped with Daimler cars and stags, the latter were very large, half as big again as a Daimler, and were kept mainly for Headquarters vehicles and Command cars. A few Dingo cars were added - these were two-man vehicles which were very fast indeed, no roof just a machine gun. I had one for a few months with Tich Bailey as my driver and found that if trouble came ahead it was possible for a good driver to reverse at high speed just by putting the Dingo into reverse gear. Just by turning his head to the rear he could travel as fast as in a normal front view.
During late summer 1942 we withdrew from our position up the blue and headed for the coast. The sight of the sea was absolutely glorious. It was then announced that all of us would be given seven days’ leave to Alexandria. We would leave in groups of a dozen or so each day by lorry as far as Mersah Metru and then would take the single line train into Alex. Sometimes we would be dropped off before the railway head and would have to hitch the rest of the way. Those who got to go first were men who had been up the blue without a break for the longest period.
While waiting to take my leave, I became friendly with Corporal Prior who, because he had recently returned from sick leave after being wounded, was low on the leaving list. He asked me to wait and go with him and I agreed. As each day passed I wondered what would happen if an unexpected attack came and we went back up again. When the list went up for the next group to go and my name was on it I could not resist the opportunity and went. As I was getting on the truck I heard Prior calling out to me saying, “I thought we were going together, Ted.” I told him that I couldn’t risk it. It turned out that Corporal Prior went with one of the last groups.
On arriving at Alexandria Station we had to find our own places to sleep. Many large flats and houses were owned by Greeks who let rooms. We dossed down on mattresses on the floors, sometimes as many as ten to a room. No food was provided but we could get this from any of the cafes nearby. As it was risky to carry sums of money around, we would deposit it with a cafe proprietor and he would then dole it out daily. This system worked very well for both sides. The first thing that we all wanted was a decent haircut and shampoo and a bath to clear all the muck away that had been accumulating the previous year – what a luxury!
The use of an inside lavatory and running tap water took some
getting used to, and to be able to drink at any time of day or night was wonderful.
We had eggs and chips several times a day and now and again a cup of iced
coffee at Groppis. No one bothered with the cinemas as being cooped up for
several hours was too wasteful of our seven days. They went in a flash but
I did have time to buy myself a pair of brown shoes. They were much too big
for me, but that did not bother me. I carried them around for years in my
knapsack and wore them up the blue now and again.
On my last full day in Alex I was seated alone in a café, having my usual plate of eggs and chips. The owner had given me the remainder of my money in local currency which amounted to the equivalent of about seven pounds in English money. We called their money “ackers” for some reason I never learnt. Just as I was about to leave the cafe in walked Bill Parkington, asking if I would go with him to Alexandria Racecourse that afternoon and explaining that my ackers were no good up the blue. Anything connected with Parkington brought trouble of one kind or another so I should have been more wary, but I listened to him as he explained how to bet on the horses, which was something I had never done before. As our train did not leave for Mersa Matruh until seven o’clock, I thought to myself why not, I had nothing to lose.
A horse drawn garry took us to the track. It looked glorious, all the wealthy Egyptians dressed up to the nines with a large contingent of officer base wallahs. There were no bookmakers, all bets were on the Tote system. All the races were trotters, with the jockey riding in a small single seat behind the galloping horse. I found that I could place a bet on two horses for about ten shillings. I chose numbers five and eight which could be reversed so if they were the first two at the finish line I had a winner. It saved all the trouble of studying the form which was and still is a mystery to me. Bill studied the book and placed his bets individually and laughed at me as neither of my horses had any hope of winning. Naturally five and eight romped in first and second and I collected ten pounds. Bill won nothing for the first four races, and I was thirty pounds ahead.
I stuck to those two numbers throughout the meeting. After the fourth win Bill stopped his study of the form and followed me, but with higher stakes. The money rolled in. In fact I had never had so much money in my life as I was forty-five pounds to the good. At five o’clock we left intent on getting our gear from the storeroom and then taking a cab to the station. We had just walked a couple of hundred yards from the course when we spotted a bar open, it was called The Blue Lagoon. Slipping inside, we sat on a stool and ordered two cold beers. Down these went in a flash. Just then two young cabaret girls asked us to join them at their table and started chatting. Bill suggested we buy them a drink and, flipping heck, they ordered champagne! Being naive I pulled out the wad to pay for it and this was seen by both of them, a big mistake for in that part of the world these girls are experts in the art of removing cash from squaddies’ pockets.
The champagne tasted foul and the last thing I remember was the barman approaching our table. I heard him say something from far away. His voice seemed to get fainter and fainter. It was getting dark when I woke up. Bill was in a state and I had to shake him. We were propped up against a wall, both with splitting headaches, all our cash gone. Thankfully our paybooks and travel passes were still in our pockets. Apparently we had been slipped a very strong “Mickey Fynn.” Even worse, our train had left three hours earlier. We decided to go to our lodgings and catch the train the following day which was the sensible thing to do, but at eleven o’clock that night I decided to hitch my way up to Mersa Matruh. Bill reckoned this was not necessary as a day could easily be lost enroute and no one would be the wiser. He could not persuade me and I left. Once outside I hitched a ride on an R.A.F. lorry going in my direction. To my horror he stopped at his camp just ten miles out and said for him it was the end of the trip. It was now one o’clock in the morning and pitch black, and I then realised that Bill was spot on and I should have listened to him. It was a very risky decision to try to make up a hundred miles or so by hitching lifts. Now began a nightmare which ended up lasting for ten long days in an Army detention camp!
I found a railway station but it was closed and there was no waiting room. I squatted down on the platform cursing my stupidity at what turned out to be a wild attempt to make up for the loss of a few hours. Around seven a.m. the first train pulled in. I sat down with a feeling of relief and contemplated my next move to make certain that the next few hours would be without stress, apart from the fact that I had just small change left.