Egypt 1941

This is the beginning of a third volume, to precede the other two – but only this first chapter was written before Paul’s death.

The troop-ship – ‘Empress of Asia’
On 24 June 1941 the former Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Asia, now adapted as a troop-ship, arrived at Port Tewfic at the southern end of the Suez Canal. The Empress was over thirty years old, with clapped-out coal-burning engines and had spent most of her life in the Pacific plying between Vancouver and the Far East. We were her first passengers – or perhaps ‘cargo’ would be a better word – after the conversion to troop-ship. A full description of our nineteen-week voyage from Liverpool demands an essay to itself, which must await another occasion; enough to say that it had not been comfortable.

We had embarked without knowing our destination – the only clue being that we had already been issued with tropical kit – and during the voyage there was much speculation but no firm information about this. Much of the trip was of course extremely boring for us, but in the world outside there were many changes in the military situation, most of them to the disadvantage of Britain. By the end of April the Germans had completed their occupation of Greece and this was followed by the recapture of the Libyan province of Cyrenaica which had been taken by us in the Wavell push of the previous winter. Only the besieged garrison at Tobruk remained in British hands. Whilst we were still in the Southern Atlantic there was the drama of the sinking of HMS Hood by the battleship Bismarck which had come out from the shelter of Norwegian fjords into the North Atlantic. The Bismarck was itself sunk a few days later. By the beginning of June, Crete was finally evacuated following the German airborne invasion. The only positive good news during the whole voyage was the continuing destruction of the Italian East African ‘Empire’ in Somalia and Ethiopia, largely achieved by the South Africans. Two days before we reached Suez, however, there was the event which had the greatest effect on the whole strategy of the war – ‘Barbarossa’, the German attack on Russia.

INTERPOLATION ONE – The Army, A healthy life?
It seems extraordinary that during my six years in the Army there was only one occasion when I was sick enough to be excused all duties. The point of saying this now is that it was on the Empress somewhere in the tropical seas of the Indian Ocean that this had happened: I had a bad attack of food-poisoning and spent three days of delicious coolness in the air-conditioned sick bay.

Qasassin Transit Camp
At Port Tewfic we disembarked by tender on to the quayside, now fully and uncomfortably attired in tropical uniform and carrying not only our field-service marching kit-pack, haversack and so on – but also two kitbags, for we still had our usual thick battledress and greatcoats. Fortunately we did not need to do any marching and the 72nd (Northumbrian) Field Regiment RA, consisting of some nine hundred men, was efficiently provided with mugs of tea and haversack rations before being loaded into motor coaches with civilian Egyptian drivers who immediately began to demonstrate what we found to be their normal all-in-the-hands-of-Allah style of driving.

Between the Nile Delta itself and the Suez canal there is a strip of true desert about thirty miles wide which has an annual rainfall of nil and is flat, hard and featureless. At the time of the construction work at Suez during the middle of last century another, much smaller, canal was dug across the centre of this area from the Nile to lsmailia to bring a supply of fresh water to the Canal Zone. This was the Sweet Water Canal and parallel to it was later built a railway and a road. There were no developments of irrigation or agriculture on either side. Here the British Army had established a vast series of base and transit camps extending over many square miles. As far as the eye could see there were ranks and ranks of white cotton tents, spaced quite widely apart but neither camouflaged nor dug-in. At intervals there were more permanent buildings – cookhouses, shower-blocks and latrines. As we drove through to our allotted area we could see that it was mostly unoccupied, with the walls of the tents rolled up, leaving the ridged fly-sheets supported mysteriously in mid-air. The whole of our newly-disembarked 50th Division – some fifteen thousand men – was absorbed into quite a small portion of this complex without difficulty. Of course the military situation was not one where many troops were likely to be at base camps, and it has been said that on our arrival we were the only fully-manned and equipped Division in the Middle East.

I suppose that life here at Qassasin was slightly less boring and uncomfortable than when on board the Empress of Asia but there can have been little in it. The sun shone relentlessly from dawn to dusk, and our parades and training programmes were thankfully planned to allow a three-hour rest period during the heat of those midsummer afternoons. Then we sweated in our tents, the side-walls rolled back to allow through what slight breeze there might be. Taking a cold shower gave a brief respite, but hardly justified the hundred-yard walk through the heat between shower block and tent. At least the tents were not too crowded; the side walls were about four feet high and in the centre there was plenty of room to stand upright.

Our tropical uniforms seemed to be relics of another age. I remembered that when I was a boy there was on our living-room wall a large steel engraving – I expect that my parents had bought it in the early years of the century at the time when they were married – depicting a battle scene entitled ‘A warm corner for the guns’, showing British troops in action against the dastardly Boers. In my memory, the uniforms seemed very like our new ones. Our sun-helmets were extraordinary creations: very large, and shaped like inverted hip-baths, made of some sort of fibrous board, with an inner lining to hold them away from the head, and with leather chinstraps. Except during the early morning and in the evening we were obliged to wear these at all times, under threat of discipline. There was a ‘best’ uniform which I cannot remember wearing very often, although I expect we had to do so for Church Parades: this consisted of a khaki drill jacket, just like the Boer War engraving, done up tightly at the neck, closely fitted at the waist, and with buttoned side and breast pockets. It seemed a concession that the buttons were a sort of plastic and not brass. This was worn with very narrow drainpipe trousers which I thought to be rather elegant, but this was not the popu1ar view, the civilian trend at the time being for extremely wide floppy bags with flared bottoms. For ordinary purposes we wore quite sensible drill shirts, open at the neck with long sleeves which were rolled up during the day, but of course there was a standard rule about this which decreed that the turned-up part on the upper arm shou1d be the depth of a normal cigarette packet. The shorts were baggy and went down to the knees, where there was a turn-up of about eight inches supported by buttons at the side. The point of this was that in the evenings, to avoid mosquitos, they cou1d be tucked into the top of the socks, or more accurately the hose­tops, which were woollen tubes pulled on over the standard short socks and tucked into the boots at the ankle where they were covered by short puttees.

We slept directly on the ground and, from this time onwards, wherever we moved, I was not on a bed again until about ten months later when I had a week’s leave at a hotel in Cairo. Some people found it more comfortable to dig little indentations in the ground to accommodate hips or shou1der, but I never found this necessary; skinny and boney as I was, I cannot remember any sleeplessness on that account. We were ordered always to use our new mosquito nets, although there did not seem to be any mosquitos. These insects do not stray far from the water in which they breed, and the rules forbidding stagnant puddles to form around cookhouses or showers were carefully observed. Our nets were not of the ample kind which hang down from above, but were self-supporting on a wooden frame and the interior of a tent at night gave the appearance of being full of ghostly transparent green coffins. It was very hot during the night and since the nets did restrict the movement of air and, as no one was bitten, most of us gave up using them. Then one morning we woke to find ourselves covered in bites and there were scores of mosquitos sitting on the inside of the tent. These we quickly transformed into little blotches of our blood. It seemed that during the night there had been a change in the wind and this swarm had been blown towards us from the Sweet Water canal over a mile away. It must have been about this time when we began to take daily doses of mepacrine as a precaution against malaria.

Day Trips
To help relieve our boredom, or perhaps our sexual urges, we were now offered, in rotation, day trips away from the camp area. I believe some people went to Cairo but I got no further, than Ismailia where I went with Claude Smith, a quite sophisticated public school man with a recycled Yorkshire accent. Ismailia – in the opposite direction to Cairo – was a large but to us uninteresting place and we spent most of our time at a voluntary canteen run by worthy expatriate ladies to satisfy the forces urgent demand for chicken­egg-and-chips. Such places had been set up by bodies like the Salvation Army, Church of Scotland or the WVS throughout the Middle East wherever troops were stationed. As far as the High Command were concerned there were other motives for the visit: our officer issuing the day pass had insisted that he was required to give us condoms too.

Once or twice in the relative cool of the evenings I walked, with either Joe or Alan, the mile or so to the Sweet Water canal, where there was the now unusual sight of a strip of green along the banks and an occasional slowly passing felucca. At night we were quite frequently on guard duty to protect the camp area against marauders and thieves, which were said to be rife, although I can’t remember anyone actually seeing one.

INTERPOLATION TWO – How to become a War Criminal.
A great friend of my student days, who shall be called Mark, and of whose integrity I have no doubts, told me this story, many years afterwards, of an incident at this same big depot of which Qassasin was a part. It was a year later than when I was there, and Mark was a Corporal in an Infantry battalion awaiting the time to move forward for the coming attack at El Alamein. As was the custom during darkness the camp was patrolled by sentries. Mark was the guard commander this particular night when two of his sentries caught an intruder, whereupon he woke his Sergeant-major to ask what should be done with him. Of course the correct thing to do with an Egyptian citizen would be to have handed him over to the civilian police. This would then have involved the preparation of reports, taking of evidence, the provision of proof that something had actually been stolen and so on, with the possible end-result that for some technical flaw he would get off anyway. The Sergeant-major’s solution to this was simpler: “Give him a good beating-up and then let him go” he said as he went back to bed. Mark was a gentle and sensitive man who had never beaten anyone in his life and I don’t suppose his sentries were very experienced at it either, certainly not in cold blood. However they did what they had been told and soon the intruder lay senseless on the ground. They waited for him to recover but within a few minutes realised that he was dead. This time they did not wake the Sergeant-major but tipped the body into the deep trench of an earth closet, carefully removed all traces of the scuffle and resolved on absolute secrecy. In the morning Mark merely reported to the Sergeant-major that they had carried out his instructions.

To Famagusta
We had been just a month at Qassasin when we were again loaded with all our kit on to coaches and driven the sixty miles, much of it alongside the Suez canal, to Port Said where waiting for us was a naval cruiser, the Leander. It was now dusk and we sailed almost immediately; by this time we knew that we were going to Cyprus.

The efficiency of the Navy impressed us greatly – everyone on board seemed to know what to do without any sort of flap even though the total number on board must have at least trebled. We were served a very good meal and each of us had a tot of rum which we were told had been voluntarily given from the crew’s rations. Of course it is easier to be efficient in a setting of permanent installations with communications, command posts, galley and other specialist areas in a planned and fixed relationship to each other. On the other hand the Army experience, when there is any sort of movement or flap, is that immediately no-one knows where anyone else is nor what is going on.

After several hours we sensed the vessel slowing, then stopping and rolling gently in what must have been a calm sea. We filed up on deck; it was pitch dark and there was no sign of land, but miraculously we found that a destroyer was alongside; gangways were put across and we were all transferred. There was not room for us all to go below, but quite quickly we were entering the harbour at Famagusta which was too small to take the Leander. Along the length of the quayside was standing a train of pretty little railway coaches coupled behind a dinky steam locomotive on a narrow gauge track. We boarded the coaches and puffed off into the darkness…

Link to Doing Time in the Marche, 1942-3