We call it Land of the Pharaohs and imagine it to be romantic, mysterious and very exotic, but my arrival was a rough experience with cold, sand-laden winds and endless queues for food. This was a soldier’s life and I was no soldier! On emerging from the warm bowels of the Queen Mary we were astonished to see Military Police (redcaps) wearing greatcoats and balaclavas on small tenders which were to take us ashore. We could not take this in after the heat of the Red Sea.
However, as we had many hours of waiting ahead of us we changed into winter garments. After a whole day disembarking at Tewfik we marched with full pack about a mile past a smelly oil refinery to a transit camp of marquees that had no walls. We dumped our kit and went to queue for food, for we were starving. Our meal consisted of a cold mutton chop, a mug of tea and an orange.
We squatted on the sand and tried to keep it from blowing onto our food, but it was a vain effort and we ended up grinding it with our teeth. All notions we’d had of Egypt being a hot country were now dispelled as we were all shivering. We lay down in greatcoats and a blanket and tried to sleep. After about thirty minutes a sergeant came round calling: “Are there any volunteers for guard duty?” We all told him where to go, so off he jolly well. But he was soon back with the same request. We were so cold that we volunteered en masse. We stomped and ran around to get warm and raise a sweat. The Sergeant just watched and smiled. There was no guard duty at all – army humour!
However, next day we were tucking in to tinned pineapples and peaches, which we had to pay for. Here we were risking our lives in a war on a few coppers a week and had to buy bloody food!
We next entrained for the long, slow journey to Cairo. The carriages had seats made from thin hardwood laths – no upholstery, and instead of glass the windows had louvres through which blew the wretched wind. The track had been laid down to carry trains over soft sand, and we expected to come off the rails. Boredom soon set in, and some began to play pontoon or other games. I watched as many lost their next pay parade. To watch men’s expressions as they play poker is good entertainment.
After an eternity someone shouted “Land ahead!” We all stuck our heads out of the windows and saw the tall buildings as a backdrop to squat little groups of mud houses At least the walls were of mud bricks, but the roofs were made from all kinds of trash: old carpets, linoleum, cardboard etc., all resting on strips of wood. Since Egypt could exist for years without rain such roofs seem adequate. As we approached we had a few whiffs of an atrocious odour. Chickens, goats and dogs roamed indoors and out, ignored by the residents who squatted around in such squalor, some preparing food or tending a primus stove on which a meal was cooking. Cairo has been referred to as the city on a primus stove. They were to be seen everywhere, even on the pavements in town.
We left the train eventually at a tram terminus where we were harangued and directed by a very efficient warrant officer who shouted at the locals in fluent Arabic. He directed us to a long series of trams. These vehicles were lengthy and in twos. There were three crew – one driver, one between the coaches and one at the rear. When it was safe to move the number three gave a squawk (no whistles, only a squawker), number two gave two squawks and away we went. It was quite comical.
This tram journey was delightful. It was a steady climb out of the Nile valley. The road and tramway were built on a high embankment and we looked out onto the irrigated areas where fruit and vegetables grew in abundance later in the year. Way ahead were the pyramids of Gizeh and, with a full moon above them we were fascinated, it was so beautiful. Even the most insensitive among us must have been moved.
We arrived at the tram terminus just a few hundred yards from the Cheops pyramid where motor transport was waiting. At this point the road turned right towards Alexandria, but after one kilometre we turned left into the Egyptian desert. We were on a new metalled road named “Kilo I”. Later I learned that there were more such roads named KII, KIII etc. with stand pipes at regular intervals for water.
For a few days we dug ourselves three feet deep below sand level in case of bombing, then erected tents for six men each over the excavations. We now felt very snug. Already in this camp were the sorry survivors of the Gloucester Hussars, a tank regiment which had driven over a German minefield and lost nearly all their tanks. They recounted horror stories of their slaughter.
On the opposite side of the road was a unit of the French Foreign Legion, a real nest of bandits, but tough soldiers. They were of many nationalities. I went over to air my meagre French, but found that many of them had trouble with French. Surprisingly they made me welcome and took me to their bar tent as a guest. They seemed proud that they’d escaped the law as a legionnaire criminal.
Just behind our camp was a high escarpment of rough clinker, home of some desert creatures like scorpions, snakes, giant ants and silver-black lizards. From the top you could see the pyramids, and after a few days we became so bored that five of us went over the top and made for the pyramids. As we drew near we were approached by an Arab who had a huge dog on a lead. He spoke a little English and asked: “You go Byramids ? OK, but no go burial grounds.” As there’s no letter P in Arabic, they pronounce P as B. So Pasha is Basha and a leak is a Biss and a Corporal is a Gubral and a princely person is a – well, never mind.
We continued on our way and he hovered around us. We didn’t see the Byramids that day, but we were now accustomed to the baksheesh culture (alms). Everyone wanted a tip. We finally arrived at an area which was fenced off with dannert wire – spiral coils of barbed wire. “Burial ground”, he explained, obviously waiting to make an offer. “Go in OK for blenty baksheesh”. We asked who was buried there and he said, “slaves”. Long afterwards I learned that 30,000 slaves who built the Cheops monument were buried here. They lived solely on bread, onions and water. We bribed him and he led us to an opening in the wire. We stepped through and saw a labyrinth of tiny cells, but there were no skeletons. Due to the war excavations had been suspended. We picked a handful of beautiful pebbles of amber appearance which we later lost.
Next day we were surprised to learn that we were to go sightseeing – to El Alamein, west of Alexandria. Loaded onto trucks we moved north-west towards Alexandria, but after some time moved west past red salt lakes at a place called Sidi Bishr. We arrived finally at the famous El Alamein, which looked disappointingly insignificant. The great battle had taken place in October, yet even now, over three months later, the macabre remains were a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. We could walk only in lanes between dannert wire where mines had been cleared. Arabs, employed to find and detonate the thousands of mines, were to be seen everywhere.
Aha! There was a catch in this. We’d been sent here to clear an ammunition dump which was on the Qatara Depression, an area of soft and treacherous sand. So our trucks moved south and loaded the heavy steel boxes onto empty lorries. This was heavy work and we soon became exhausted. The loaded trucks sank into the sand and we feared we might have to unload them. We envied the Germans who’d always seemed to have half-tracked trucks which never got stuck. Someone radioed for tanks which came and towed our ammo away.
We spent the night at El Alamein and the following day looked around the battle area. Italian guns and German tanks had been dug into the sand, their guns pointed menacingly eastward. They had all been smashed and melted in the heat. I approached one tank but when I tried to enter my eyes did not immediately adjust to the darkness. I stepped inside and my foot crunched on something. When I saw what it was I felt sick. Lying across the transmission were the charred remains of two Germans. The flesh was gone from them, and the remaining skeletons were black carbon. The heart of one of them had expanded into a huge black beach ball, and this is what I’d trodden on. I came out quickly. Such sights became more frequent as we progressed west.
West? No more Cairo? No, we were to follow the desert rats as far as Tripoli and we soon adapted to a whole new way of life, a whole new culture. We learned the jargon of desert warfare, even though Rommel’s Afrika Corps was way ahead of us. We had joined a motley band who were following Monty’s heroes. We became used to the ‘brew-up’ technique. There were many German petrol cans lying about – with a four-gallon capacity. We cut the top off one, then punched holes in the sides. We poured some sand into the can, then a quantity of petrol. Once we’d done this we could boil a saucepan to make tea. When newcomers reached us we had to guard our “jerry can”. The rule was: “Make your bloody own.” Morale was very high and the comradeship was stronger here than anywhere I’d been. We entered Libya finally and continued west. We’d hoped to see some action as we came within the sound of shelling, but it seemed to come mainly from the sea as our navy pounded any sign of the enemy. The Battle of El Alamein was the turning point of the war. We fed on “M&V” (meat and veg) made in big tins by McConachy of Dublin. It was tasty but monotonous. For snacks we had hard, dry crackers and a very dense tinned cheese. Other than M&V everything else was tasteless. We once were given Mexican chocolate in big blocs called iron rations, which was no misnomer. You needed a chain-saw to break it, so we attacked it with bayonets. When we’d tasted it we threw it all into the jerry can.
Out of nowhere came young Arabs offering “eggsabread” (hard-boiled bantam eggs and chapatti), salted peanuts, sunflower seeds and even ‘kazooza’ (lemonade – from the French “gazeuse”). We only enjoyed the “beanuts”. Some even did tumbling acts which were good, and one even offered us a foot-long crocodile. I’ve always found Arabs to have a keen sense of humour and their laughter is infectious. We always paid them baksheesh.
Still moving west we by-passed towns whose names we’d only heard in the news – towns taken and retaken many times between 1940 and 1942. We felt proud to belong to Monty’s army, but still wanted to get home. We’d become accustomed to desert life and were very fit, in spite of the flies and sand fleas. We’d found that a desert was not just endless sand; there were areas of red ash, outcrops of jagged rocks, and the occasional oasis around which grew date palms and which was the home of an Arab community.
One day it was explained that we needed a strong presence in the Middle East to protect our oil in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Although Russia was our ally we didn’t seem to trust them near our assets. So we came back to Cairo, where I was accommodated in an ancient barracks in the awful Abbasieh district. Napoleon’s troops had been quartered here and some French graffiti painted permanently on the walls were still to be seen. This was a vile place, alive with bed bugs and other creatures of the dark. We lay on biscuits (small mattresses) on the floor and, after “lights out”, these bugs came out for supper. They settled on our soft parts, under the arms and legs. They were shaped like a tiny woodlouse and came out of the cracks in the walls. After injecting an anti-coagulant they sucked blood. Soon afterwards you awoke covered in itchy lumps. After one night of this we moved outside, biscuits and all, and slept on the concrete. We’d spent the night constantly striking our cigarette lighters to drive them away, for they hated light.
One day a notice appeared. The Royal Armoured Corps had a fine orchestra called the Racketeers and they needed a saxophone player. In Scotland Billy Murell had taught me to play one, so I volunteered. I was accepted and offered an instrument. We practised every day. One evening we went to play at the very prestigious Shephards Hotel, my only engagement, for which I received E£10! This had been a top brass affair with uniforms covered in red lapels and “fried egg” (gold trim). Surprisingly naughty goings-on we witnessed! I pretended not to notice.
Right after this came a surprise. I was to report to GHQ, Middle Eastern Forces near to the Nile. I was worried. What had I done ? I believe that, for security reasons, my name had been traced from Lochailort onwards. Personnel who had been on secret work could be a risk, so efforts were made not to lose such people. This was my own theory, but I admired MI9 for finding me. When I arrived at GHQ I met several of my old friends from Scotland and had to sign, again, the Official Secrets Act declaration. Then my job was explained.
Yugoslavia was occupied by the Germans, but there were pockets of resistance, mainly run by Serb partisans. These latter were badly in need of supplies – blankets, food, weapons, pedal generators, ammunition, explosives and booby traps. We had set up an organisation which was in touch with their needs and we used Dakota aircraft, specially adapted for such work. Each Dakota could take twelve containers, each with a parachute, and drop them over a prearranged dropping zone. Blankets were dropped free. Lines of flares were lit to guide the planes and the containers were released. Unfortunately, a great number of drops fell into German hands. We also suspected that the Serbs used the weapons to settle old scores with the Croats and Bosnians, and fighting the Germans came second.
My job was to allocate supplies to each of twelve containers. My lists were always checked by a captain to be sure it made a balanced load. Sometimes small changes were made, but not very often.
While still at GHQ another call was made for a volunteer to learn Italian. I volunteered and was signed up for a twelve-week course at l’Ecole des Langues Vivantes Sharia Emad Ed Din, a street in the middle of town. This course was evenings only from seven till nine o’clock, as in the daytime I was busy at work. I already knew a little French, but my progress with Arabic was disappointing. However I found the system good and my Italian came on rapidly. One drawback was that, being late summer the heat was oppressive so all the windows were open to all the noises of town. Trams screeched by constantly round the bend outside, so we howled back: “CHE COSA FA QUESTO RAGAZZO ?” Students were from all Allied countries. Our Italian professore was an arrogant bastard.
Eventually Cairo became less and less important as our troops were already in Italy and the Afrika Korps well on the run. So we were put on drafts meant for Italy (we believed), and I found myself in Port Said (or should I say Bordo Zaid)?