Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shimmering Haze 1940

“The Bahamas – Islands of historic romance. Nassau, pride of the Bahamas trails it's tropic beauty along pink coral sands washed by iridescent sea...”

From “The Crown Colonist” May 1937

Shimmering Haze, Lengthening Shadows, Twilight, Starshine, Midnight, Dawn – 1949/1941

870844 Bdr.Dawson, 339 Battery, 104 (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment RHA
Later: Egypt
Later: Middle East Force

Monday 19th to Wednesday 21st August 1940

A two-night drill order – but as I said to Sid Pond, a few nights out are fuck-all nowadays, a mere bagatelle as it were. It was a Brigade Exercise actually and we represented a Syrian Army invading Palestine. (Perhaps a rehearsal for an invasion in fact of Syria by the Palestine garrison as many blokes darkly hinted.)

The first evening was lovely; a bivouac in large, sweet smelling eucalyptus woods. Delightful to lie there – and even to wake at 4a.m.! - with trees and bushes bathed in moonshine all around me as I lay. Keeble, inspired, even tried to compose a little poetry! Pond lying beside me, talked of home – how he longed to get back there, feeling somehow that his wife felt insecure, although her letters were still cheery. The next night wasn't so good, in battle positions further south in the scrub and sand. 2 1/2 hours sleep, that night. And during the days the flies were a torment...

We're back in camp now. It is thought that our training programme is practically complete at last. One more big drill order and – what then? Underhill has just come into my candlelit tent and waits impatiently to discuss old music. I will now conclude number 4 of the war diary. Oh! I do hope I don't lose these books!

Heil Freiheit! In our canteen has appeared the notice, prominently shown beside the wireless set:- “Please Only Use British Broadcasting Stations. By Order.”

Tuesday 13th to Friday 16th August 1940

A rather exciting drill order. On Tuesday night our tents were empty except for packs, haversacks, respirators etc. The bulk of our kits, bed-boards, sand-fly nets and so forth had been stowed away in the Quarters stores. A bright moon, so we guessed there was to be a “surprise” drill order. We just lay down on our ground sheets in the tents, not even troubling to use the blankets which each of us had put in his pack.

As anticipated, they wakened everyone at 2a.m. We carefully filled our water bottles, had a good drink at the tap and hurried down to the swamp and got aboard our vehicles. The Battery crept out, in column of route, at 2:45a.m. Have now learnt how to put my right arm around the air filter in M1 and thus secured, can sleep with a certain amount of safety; the arm does not loose it's embrace of the filter even when I fall asleep, luckily.

Awoke to find myself near Tulkarem, in a bivouac field. We breakfasted there and moved on to Nablus. The road beyond began to climb further into the hills. M1 was driven under an olive tree at one halt and we remained there, in the middle of a rocky field for two hours. So then I could lie down. A friendly Arab proudly cleared the stones away with our shovel, then beat the earth with a stone until it was delightfully soft. He refused cigarettes or chocolate (very unusual!) rattling off some gibberish which I later learnt meant: “Thank you very much” Truly a courteous Arab! I dozed deliciously there, in the shade of the olive tree, stretched on the softened earth, haversack under my head.

We moved on again, higher into the mountains by a series of zig-zag bends called “Seven Sisters”. Now it was cool and windy, height nearly 3000 feet. Tonight – Wednesday – we bivouacked in a hollow of the hills near Bireh. A party of Arabs came from the nearest village, pushing an elderly man at their head. “Hullo Johnnie!” he cried to my astonishment, coming to where I lay on a bit of ground which I'd beaten, Arab fashion, with a stone, “You go to bed already?” “What! You speak English?” I ejaculated. “Sure!” he said smugly, “I been five years in America!”

An amusing old ruffian, obviously basking in the admiration of the crowd of accompanying Arabs, who could not chat so easily with the English. He had fought with the Turkish Army against us. He said that most Arabs were happy under British rule; we did not take their women, or make their sons join the Army and we had given Palestine water.

“Yehudi!” cried an ignorant Yeoman. “What you mean, “Yehudi”?” laughed the linguist, whilst his brown companions smiled eagerly, “You won't find no Yehudi 'ere!” He expounded on religious differences too. “There 'ain't no Jesus Christ, no Mohammed, no Moses. There's just one God,” and he pointed to the sky. They wanted to bring us fruits and tea but that was of course forbidden by the officers, so eventually they had to reluctantly go away.

In charge of bivouac guard tonight. Damn cold! The first time I've felt chilly for many months. The reliefs were only changed every three hours, so I had a fair amount of sleep, huddled in my blanket on the tail board of a lorry.

Breakfast at 4:30a.m. and we moved off at 6:15a.m. just before the sun cleared the hills. (What glorious sunrises and sunsets we've known and now take as a matter of course!) Quite early in the morning we passed through Jerusalem, and took the road past the Garden of Gethsemane towards the Dead Sea. Down into desolation swung the road. Fantastic scenery, fake stage settings it reminded me of – queer hills, volcanic rocks, a panorama which looked like a relief contour map.

Precipice and hairpin bend, the road to Jericho. (“The road to Jericho!” It seemed a familiar phrase! Was it the name of a book? Or a saying?) No houses, no people, not even Bedouins. No traffic coming up except for lorries from the Dead Sea salt (or potash?) workings. As we swung round a bend I glanced above – and there, about 50 feet higher up was M2 rushing past, about a hundred yards in rear of M1 and H.
In the front seat of M2, lounged Bob Andrews. He raised his hand in greeting as M2 sped out of my line of vision. Just then he looked more like an American sightseer than an OP signaller!

We dashed on, past a board making sea level. In the rear of the 8cwt. W/T truck next ahead I saw Ernie Cole and Eric Willoughby. Cole made frantic gestures, indicative of drowning agonies, pointing back to the sea level mark. There was no wind now and it was much warmer as the road wound down. We came out of the hills into a grim sort of plain bounded by terrific mountains (Trans-Jordanian) beyond. (Previously we'd seen those flat, table topped mountains, a thin ridge showing most weirdly above the mists).

A fork in the road – right for the Dead Sea, left for Jericho. We turned left. Peering back I saw the water of that queer sea glinting in the sunshine. Desolation still on either side. Scrub and rock. Suddenly – Jericho! This shook me! It was a lovely green, colourful place of tropical beautifulness (like the Bahamas!) Date palms, tobacco plants, banana plants, grape vines. Wide, clean roads, a lovely smell of flowers. The few Arabs were quite black, not brown. Final shock, an English hotel called “The Winter Palace Hotel” which looked thoroughly civilised. (Ah! I thought, as we dashed on, I must come here as a tourist,stay at that hotel and sit in the Dead Sea and climb these dreary hills!) Beyond exotic Jericho, the road became suddenly rough and exceeding dusty.

We stopped after some time; apparently there was to be a battery position here, in the Jordan Valley. I looked around and saw a strange little series of buildings half-way up the side of a mighty precipice some distance off. How the buildings stayed there, in mid-air as it seemed, I could not imagine! Looked trough a telescope; there appeared to be a tower in which a great bell dangled and a balcony hanging over nothingness on which a man was sitting. A steep track wound up the hill towards the base of the great cliffs where it disappeared.(Shangri la! Surely that must be it's name! “Lost Horizon”!) Later we heard that the cliff-buildings were those of a monastery and the mountain above was the Hill of Temptation. So this awful place was the Wilderness!

We had several Battery positions. There was no shade whatever; sun-bleached rocks, phosphates dust... The heat increased to 120F. Some of the blokes had empty water bottles and looked savagely at those who had been more careful. I'd conserved mine. When I found that some SOD had apparently found my bottle and had had a good swig, leaving the bottle half empty, I was “shaken”. With disgusting evil-ness I “got around” the M1 driver, Jackie Hall and he (bless his heart!) let me refill my bottle from the can containing spare water for the radiator. Fearful discipline...

As we waited at the final rendezvous in the Valley we saw a whirlwind. There were bushes here and suddenly they became mysteriously agitated as though some animal lurked within. I felt inclined to hurry over and investigate, thinking some of the lads might be chasing snakes but, still, - well it was about 120F just then so I waited where I was! The bushes stirred again; the movement came to the edge; a ghostly column of twigs and dust and leaves appeared, spiralling upwards to a considerable height. I'd never have believed if I hadn't seen it! The whirlwind drifted eerily away into the rocks.

For an hour or so we roared northwards along the Valley. Dust; volcanic, fantastic rocks, the great mountains at either side. A quarter mile ahead was a dust cloud – GB truck, and the same distance astern was another dust cloud – H truck. We gradually left the Valley. The first green village was in the hills near Tubas. We halted beside a rippling stream and out of every lorry tumbled dust covered men to plunge hands and faces into the glorious water. A little further on M1 had to stop whilst a herd of camels passed and then I hastily purchased a gigantic ripe water melon for two piastres. Soon afterwards we neared Nablus and made bivouac near to Jacob's Well.

Slept from 9:30 to 4:30 a.m. That was Thursday. On Friday we reached Camp at midday and were on maintenance until 4p.m. - pay parade. The rest of the evening was occupied by drawing our kit from the stores again and cleaning it up, ready for tomorrow's inspection by the CO. There was the belt to be scrubbed and washing to be changed, bed boards and sand fly nets to be put in place again. And – oh hell!
A letter from my Mother, the first since May 28th. This one was dated May 28th , quaintly enough. All OK there, anyhow.

Air blitzkrieg against England in full swing now. The bombers are coming over in their hundreds now. Air raid sirens sounded in London yesterday, when Croydon was bombed... I could imagine Mother. She could hear the explosions from Ealing, I reckon. Today, bombs fell “north and south of The Thames Estuary" – Southend, Leigh and Westcliff? - and “at Tilbury and Rochester” - those walks in Kent! - and “at Thames Haven' – Canvey Island? All rather horrible isn't it? Well here we are, all our kits neatly stacked and about 3000 miles away from home.

“You bullshitter, Steve!” cried Mick Kane as he saw my scrubbed belt hanging out to dry outside my tent tonight. (His brother is dead – RAF – and his parents live in the Channel Isles, now occupied by the Germans.) “At least I have the joy,” I shouted back, “Of knowing that I've done my bit for old England!”
“Polishing for Victory, what?”

Footnote to the account of the drill order. Although I served three summers as a Territorial, I never, owing to circumstances, went on guard except as an NCO and so have never delivered a challenge whilst on sentry-go. This rankled sadly. But now at last I've challenged!!! During the early hours of Thursday, whilst i/c Guard in the hills near Bireh, the thrill happened. I lounged by the ammo wagon. It was between reveille and breakfast; very dark – the moon had set. Someone was crossing A Troop area, carrying an electric torch which, turned downwards, showed a pair of Army boots and the bottoms of a pair of canvas overall trousers. The chance had come! My patrol were some way off! I took my rifle and stealthily crossed the rocks until I was in the line of advance of the owner of the boots. They neared the HQ area.

“HALT! Who goes there?” I roared suddenly, throwing up the rifle. (Ah! Ecstasy!) The boots halted. “Friend,” came the reply. In a sinister manner I snarled “Advance, friend and be recognised” accenting the middle word so as to imply that bloody acts would follow if the “friend” was not recognised! My prize came nearer and halted again. “Sergeant-major.” “Eh, right,” I drawled, shaken. “Pass friend, all's well.”

Another glorious experience to add to my “many strange adventures”!

Wednesday 7th August 1940

I found the ring late this afternoon, whilst walking towards my tent. The sun was getting low and a ray glinted on a bit of silvery metal just above the surface of the dust. Sheer luck – no, fate! I wasn't looking for it or even thinking about it. I slipped it back on my finger, none the worse and felt like the traditional million dollars. Safe! (So it seemed.) My talisman, symbol of the past was back!

The camp, once about 100 yards square in area now rambles raggedly (dug in, camouflaged tents) for a length of about a mile and a half and is about half a mile wide at it's widest. Nowadays, there are air raids in Palestine; chiefly in the Haifa area but it may be our turn soon.

Monday 5th August 1940

August Bank Holiday Monday – and we celebrated it! Reveille 7a.m. and parade at 9a.m. for a fake “route march in vehicles”. We drove, in convoy, to Tiberias in north-east Palestine. Hilly roads, through Jenin, Affula and Nazareth then down, down, down, until we could see Lake Tiberias gleaming blue below us. Then we passed a notice board marked “Sea Level” and still went down! Rather warm in Tiberias. Only 90 minutes before we had to return, just time for a drink and the ubiquitous eggs, chips and tomatoes in a cafe that was “in bounds to troops.” Just time to sit by the lake, once known as the Sea of Galilee and watch naked Arab children diving for coins and to look across at Syria beyond the water (longingly, for Syria was no longer in the bloody war!).

We passed the Hotel Tiberias, a large civilised building, upon the terrace of which sat two or three obviously European or American people. (Ah! Nostalgia! You tear at my vitals!) Anyhow I'd realised another boyhood dream and been below sea level – nearly 700 feet below, actually!

Hadlow and I sat in the candlelit, semi-underground tent, cleaning our kits. “I want to ask you somethin' now, Steve,” he said solemnly, “And I want you to answer very frankly!” “Right!” I said. “Why,” asked Hadlow, “Are you always telling people about the Bahamas and showing them that piece of paper about tropical beauty and all that? Some sentimental reason? Or what?”

I undid the buckle from my belt and carefully began to polish the brass work. “I don't know, boy! Unless I'm going fuckin' mad!”

Sunday 4th August 1940

An all day holiday, the first for many weeks!

Ron and I moved in the kits of Gregory and Charlie Perry, and knocked in a few pegs and fastened the trailings down. I searched grimly, but could not find the silver ring. Daren't think of all it means and the link with the past that it is.

Cookhouse fatigues, but was able to get down to the beach for two hours this afternoon. Rough sea, officially no bathing. Went through the breakers to the swell beyond, several times. They “shook” me when they suddenly reared up and struck – a cascade of mad swirling water.

Stan and I found a kiosk on the beach and had a cup of tea there. There were two old English magazines on the table and I furtively tore out a page from one, “The Crown Colonist” for May 1937. An advertisement for The Bahamas! At the top of the page are the words “The Bahamas” and “Islands of Historic Romance” Beneath is a picture of some West Indies port and the magnificent statement, “Nassau, pride of the Bahamas, trails it's tropical beauty along pink coral sands washed by iridescent seas”. I proudly carried this around and read it to anyone who'd listen. “Say you saw it in “The Crown Colonist”” ends the advertisement.

“...Washed by iridescent seas, boy,” I told Jack Chenery. He laughed. “All night long his amorous descent sang,” he said, “Thus Dawson, boosting the Bahamas!”
“Who's is that saying?”
“Very good,” I said and hurried back to my candlelit dug out tent to tell the boys about the Bahamas.

Saturday 3rd August 1940

Finished the ARP pit and pitched the tent inside it. Hadlow and I moved our kits in this afternoon. Seemed much more roomy than before; the deep walls make it more “snug”. Nice, too, to be in shelter again.

Went to Nathanya tonight with Stan Ling. Did some shopping, then both went to the flicks. Got back late – after midnight – and bluffed our way through two sentry-posts without having to report to the guard room. I was all in favour of a gentle “snake” around the barracks then a furtive approach of our camp from the beach side, eluding if possible, two sentries and two “prowlers”. We adopted Stan's technique eventually though, as it was not long past midnight. This gave me an idea of the different methods Stan and I would adopt if we were attempting to escape from a prisoner of war camp.

Somewhere, somehow, today, before going to Nathanya, I lost the old silver ring.

Friday 2nd August 1940

Just came off regimental guard. Then – frantic cleaning up for tomorrow. Had to be done by darkness; my kit is in the open as tents are being dug in at present. 18 inches below ground with an 18 inch bank of earth around it – ARP. So we live in the open until our particular hole is complete. Only Ron Hadlow and I left at the moment. “How are you Steve?” asked passers-by as they saw me cleaning up hastily. “Going bloody mad, mate, otherwise OK,: I'd reply in correct Army style.

We should have been in Egypt by now but there's been a hitch somewhere. Apparently plans have been altered and our move indefinitely postponed. Training is no longer “intensive”. I've volunteered for some mysterious Army of irregulars which is being raised to harass the Italians, probably in Abyssinia or the southern Sudan. Little known about the force except that applicants must be unmarried and prepared to spend long periods away from civilisation. Probably good training for a gangster!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Monday 29th July 1940

Today I received a cablegram from Eileen in reply to a rather agitated letter I sent by air, last month. I was wondering if all was well, if the rationing was too strict and so forth.

The cable read: “Received letter june twentyone provisions excellent everything fine love eileen simmons”

Saturday 27th July 1940

We arrived home (”HOME” indeed!) about 2p.m. yesterday. Rushed into the canteen and ordered a large lemonade, with eggs, cucumber and chips, just before it closed. Had a good wash before next parade. Spent the evening in cleaning up for the next day's inspection. However, the OC was pleased with us, bless him, and did not hold any formal kit inspection. (Unofficially however, several unfortunates who'd left their kits in shit order, were “pegged” by the BSM.)

This afternoon, not being on duty, I've been in the canteen with Stan Ling, writing letters – and this. Nobody else there and the wireless whispering music. Had 7 1/2 hours sleep last night and feel quite fresh. Shall go down for a swim presently and later have tea in the canteen. Tonight, perhaps, the pictures. Lovely leisure, when the powers that be are pleased with us!

Thursday 25th July 1940

We moved, at about 12:30a.m to the new position Command Post and exchange in a moonlit orchard of some sorts. White-clad Arabs watched suspiciously as we scrambled gingerly through a hole in the cactus hedge. Plenty of work then – and we were all very tired, hungry and sleepy.

When it became light (after hours of chaotic communications) things were not so bad. There were bunches of grapes all around us, so no wonder the Arab was watchful! We bought them from him at the rate of three bunches – 1 piastre. Fitful sleep between midday and three, cowering under the vines. The sun kept seeking us out however, mercilessly, as the small shadow shifted. There were flies... Stan Ling came to relieve us for two or three hours. Whilst he was in the hole apparently all lines failed and they had to utilise the other exchange.

Qute pleasant as it became cooler though.Supper came up at 9:30p.m. and we augmented the usual stew by two tins of baked beans, purchased from the wagon lines. Slept (in an open patch, not under the vines) from 10p.m. to 12 midnight. Which ended today! We return tomorrow; I've enjoyed this Scheme and look with gloomy foreboding to the return to Camp and bullshit. Shall enjoy having a wash though, and, with luck, a swim.

Wednesday 24th July 1940

6:40a.m. Still in the same hole – we did not move to the new position last night after all. Slept from 11:30p.m. to 3:15 a.m, when we had a meal, presumably breakfast. Feel awfully dirty but we've obtained a small mug of water and four of us will shave in that. Shall not be able to wash yet. The water in our bottles is too precious. However, I'll shave now, in between calls. We're fairly busy – there are eight lines on, including Wagon lines, 414 (“Q”) and RHQ (“LASE”)

8a.m. Grant, Gilbert and Hignall are all asleep nearby. I can see John Goodwin beside the command post camouflage further along the wadi, eating a slice of melon. Keeble is at his phone.

Treating this stunt as a rehearsal for active service, I brought my most treasured belongings ie. diaries, fountain pen and photograph collection along with me. That is one thing that “shakes” me – the diaries. “I thought if you died, I should die...” as Brooke said. Well, if they were lost it would seem as if my past – all the things that happened and created memories – were dead. It wouldn't be so, of course, but the loss of the diaries would be as nasty a jar as that. The two books with me (running from the last home leave to now) and those I may write whilst this bloody rotten war lasts, are the major problem. I hear that much of our kit will remain at the Base and that, according to the “exigencies of the service” we may not see it again! As it is at present impossible to send them home, the safest place for my diaries seems to be on my person. So I've obtained a satchel signals from Stan Ling and it is with me on this drill order, containing the two books, my pen and a packet of photographs – all wrapped in a cloth – together with an RA Code, sheets of AF/C 2128 and three tins of tape rubber jointing.

11p.m. This afternoon I rigged up my groundsheet above the hole – could have done so before, only I didn't expect to be here so long. It was sultry under the groundsheet, but shaded from the sun. After that very early meal we later received two rounds of bread (cheese and fish respectively) and that was all until the evening meal at 8:15p.m. During the day we shared a tin of herrings and a few hard (Troops for the use of) biscuits and a water-melon – hoarded and scrounged variously. Lucky we had that bit extra!

11:40 now – it's taken forty minutes to scribble these few lines in between calls and by the light of one of the switchboard bulbs. The moon's up now. “B” Troop has moved to it's new position – an hour ago the weird silhouettes of armoured towing vehicles, guns and limbers crept by here. “A” Troop and the Command Post will be shifting to odd positions later tonight. Complicated communications. Rehearsal for static not RHA warfare...

Tuesday 23rd July 1940

Continuing – I only stopped to draw the line above and enter today's date – things have not been so good since this morning, when we left the farm. We dug-in and have remained here all day in the midst of a barren waste. There's been no protection from the sun, we are all very dirty and very tired. Shortage of water and no food except for the haversack rations (one sandwich and awful biscuits) since 6a.m.

However things are altering shortly. It's 8:15 now, the ration lorry is on it's way and we'll be moving soon to a “battle position” about a mile away. More work – in the dark! - before we settle down. Ah well! I'll have a cigarette meanwhile!

Monday 22nd July 1940

There have been several drill orders since last Monday and this is the first evening of a scheme which will last four or five days. There's been a lot to write about, if only I'd had the time. The night exercise last Wednesday – how I went down to the beach from the gun park after my vehicle was loaded. Tramped through a mile of genuine desert, feeling rather like a foreign legionnaire, until I came to the “snakes pit.” Alone! We seldom see Sid now he's a sergeant, Ron is on a course, Stan was gone with the advance party and Jack was Canteen Orderly) It was good to plunge into the warm water, whilst my sweat-soaked clothes dried in the sun!

That evening, moving into the already prepared position, by moonlight. Sitting in the back of an open lorry for two hours, under the moon, sometimes singing. Sleeping, that night, for four hours beneath the orange trees, whilst Grant and Gilbert worked the exchange in turn. Goodwin and Keeble were at the Command Post; the permanent M1 crew which will go into action.

The horrible Saturday – hard work and bullshit and misery. I was detailed to scrub tables without judgement or hearing for unfair reasons and was taken off this when I began to get awkward and requested the right to make a formal protest and so forth.

That evening I went to a moonlight dance with Stan Ling. Romantic, in the gardens on the cliff, in bright moonshine; but there were no English girls there and I'd almost forgotten how to dance. We had plenty of dances though and tore back to camp just at midnight.

Sunday – awful. We had to stack our kits – everyone – as we were held in bad favour by the OC. And spent the whole day working. Packed and struck the signals stores tent. Stowed all the signals instruments on the drill order vehicles.

Evening: packed our sea kit bags, packs and haversacks and loaded them. 414 Battery had a day's holiday as usual. Oh hell!

This morning we had to stack kits as usual – and we were back within half an hour, packing everything and storing it with the Q. Yes! Every tent was left empty! “Good Lord!” said one of the regular instructors, temporarily attached to us, “Do you always do this when there's a drill order?” (I'll never volunteer again!) However, once we were packed there was little to do until we moved off at 2p.m. Not too bad once we were on the way.

We've bivouacked (not in battle positions) at a farm house near Kefar Yona. Nice people; they gave us some Russian tea. I must turn in now. All this was written in the rear of a wireless truck. 9p.m. now, The sea mail came (third time within a week!) and I had a letter from Eileen.

We laid two metallic lines, one through several orange groves to the wagon lines and one overhead to the roof of the farmhouse, where there's an air sentry.

Am continuing this at sunset of Tuesday, sitting before my switchboard in a four foot hole which has been very hot during the ten hours I've been here. It was pleasant at Kefar Yona though! That tea! The people did not understand English, only Hebrew and German. I had to utilise nearly all my knowledge of Deutch to get the tea, for which they'd take no payment (country Jews are unlike town Jews). The peculiar tea “shook” us at first sight but actually it tasted ripping. And we all had a shower in an out house! There was Eileen's letter to be read; she'd sent photographs too, including one of the war memorial where we'd had our first rendezvous, in the utter darkness of the black out.

Tonight, there being no exchange set up, I slept right from 9:30p.m. to 4:45a.m. Made my bed in a lemon grove, near M1. Slept comfortably between two iron pipes, stars above when I opened drowsy eyes; the moon rose later.

Monday 15th July 1940

Listeners seldom hear good of themselves. I certainly heard something comical if not unduly good about myself tonight, as three signallers strolled past my tent, discussing today's drill order.

“Well, after we'd laid the line, I went along to the command post, see? They'd got the exchange in a hole, you couldn't see it till you were right there. I sat down for a bit. Then all of a sudden bloody Dawson takes his water bottle and unwraps a towel with his razor and all that and sits there, besides the exchange, shaving himself. Soap all over his face... You'd have laughed...”

Sunday 14th July 1940

I awoke with a start at 5:10a.m. “Oh! What time is it? Ten past five? Time to get up... No! It's Sunday and there's two hours to reveille!” Cecil Orrin heard this monologue. “That's right” he said sleepily. I lay down again – it was neat ecstacy – and fell into a delicious slumber.

Saturday 13th July 1940

Half holiday! And I was not on duty from 6pm. onwards! So I went into Nathanya alone, and had supper (the eternal eggs and chips) at a cafe there. The rest of the evening, with one break, was spent in beer swilling. During the “break” I went out and bought a really good wristwatch, leaving the other one in part exchange. Haggled down from £2-15-0 to £2-2-0 (the watch seller liked to talk in English terms of money!)

Things were pretty rowdy in the cafe when I returned. Cracknell had spewed twice as he sat at the table; Goodwin's trousers were soaked in beer; Leonard giggled helplessly; Butler lurched around. Men were standing up and singing doleful, slow songs whilst their mates glared savagely around. “Gi'us order now! The singer's on 'is feet!” “Silence lads, a good song and a good singer!” “Crikey, there'll be a fight here soon!” chuckled Sid Pond.

After closing time, a little nauseated, I left the others and had more egg and chips in a little blacked out cafe. (Might have been tight myself if I'd not gone out for the watch, earlier on. In the interval the others got several pints ahead.) I walked home (home!) alone along the beach. Ah! It was exquisite alone-ness! With the moon shining on the restless waves and breakers! Very late at night and time to dream.

Reached camp, without meeting anyone, at midnight.

Friday 12th July 1940

Had a stump of candle on my table in the mess tent during breakfast this morning, so that I could see what I was eating. After the meal I took out a packet of “Capstan”, put a “tube” in my mouth, leaned forward and lit it in the candle's flame. Once again I thought of that little tea place in Surrey, The Old Mill House at Thorpe.

Then I switched my thoughts – all this in a second, as the first twirl of smoke rose from the glowing end – and looked forwards, not backwards. I wondered if in some future year I'd be sitting at tea in The Mill House, with a girl beside me, fire glowing in the old grate, water gurgling outside; I wondered if, tea finished, I would lean forward to light a cigarette and think back to these days and if then, in retrospect, they'd seem good days of a glorious adventure.

Thursday 11th July 1940

Chiefly “maintenance” today, in preparation for tomorrow's drill order (reveille will be at 4a.m. and all that).

Some time ago I sent an article - “written during a nostalgic evening in the canteen” - to the Divisional magazine, “The Hobby Horse”. I received a nice letter from the editor in return and then forgot about it. Today, however, Ling showed me a current copy of “The Hobby Horse” and there was my little article, child of my homesick thoughts and memories! “Home Thoughts from Abroad:1940” I daresay it was the closing phrase that won publication; “...And some day we'll get back there, for that is the country and those are some of the things for which we shall fight.” Or words to that effect! Proudly, I mailed a copy home to my Mother. Guess it will get there before winter, probably late in autumn.

Wednesday 10th July 1940

Went to Nazareth today (far away in the hills of northern Palestine) to see the Medical Specialist at the new Base Hospital. I was with him for a long time. He was a real expert – 100% Harley Street and 0% Sandhurst. Dozens of odd questions after he'd examined me. (“Have you any worries?” “Are you happy out here?” “Do you sleep well?”) One was “Are you engaged to be married?” “No sir, not now.” “Not now - ?” “It was broken off.” “When?” “Just after the war began...” (I suppose it is broken off, I thought dismally, Oh the chaos!) “Ah! That upset you I suppose?” “Well, I broke it off sir.” “Yes?” “And I feel rotten about it. Wish I'd never got engaged.” “I see.”

When he'd finished and read through various reports, he still seemed doubtful how to grade me! More or less left it to me! “The units moving soon sir.” “And you want to go with it?” “Yes! I've been training with it all this time – the men are mostly from my own county – I want to see theory put into practice, too.” “You are in “D” now.” - “I can't go if I'm “D” sir.” (Secretly nearly weeping, to my horror!) “What category can they have in your unit?” “Only “A”.” “A? Well, you're sure you don't want a transfer?” “I'd hate to write home and say that my address was now RASC, sir” (nearly a faux-pas! I almost said RAMC instead of RASC!) He laughed, for the first time. “We'll see what can be done! And if you're still in this part of the world in a month's time, I'd like to see you again”


Tuesday 9th July 1940

Today's drill order pleased the Powers!

Monday 8th July 1940

First day of “intensive”.

Reveille 4a.m. Parade at the gun park (a mile away) at 5:45. I think I was there on time – the BSM was only 100 yards ahead at the finish – but a good many blokes straggled in late. We all tried hard on the drill order which lasted until about 12:30p.m.

At 3:30p.m. (Yes! we had a siesta!) we were marched down to the gun park again for maintenance. Returned to camp at 4:30p.m. for an NCO's discussion on the drill order. It was teatime when that finished. HQ Troop had to parade at the gun park again at 7p.m. as part of our punishment for the late start. I scrambled into my shorts, puttees and drill order kit and then found I was a little early. Strolled along the sandy track to the gun park, noticed the peaceful atmosphere suddenly. The low sun near the western sandhills; Arab shepherd watching flock of sheep, grazing, bells a-tinkle; birds singing; alone-ness.

“What bloody nonsense it all is!” I lit my pipe and walked on, sun hat in hand.
Lieutenants Turner and Dawnay, when they arrived, also in drill order kit, seemed somewhat ill at ease, as though they liked the job no more than we did. Only a few scapegoats in the ranks of HQ Troop – the rest were on guard, working, in prison at Jerusalem, in hospital or absent – whilst the officers went through the farce of inspecting us – we were all in a filthy state. Got back at about 8:15p.m. Just time for a shower and a snack in the NAAFI and this.

Reckon I'll have to cut down my diary writing soon – there'll be no time. Reveille at 4 again tomorrow and we'd better be on parade early. Unlucky “A” Troop have to be ready by 5:30, as a little extra punishment.

Sunday 7th July 1940

We were wakened by the men on duty at 8 o'clock – when the breakfast came! After we'd eaten and cleaned up the room we washed and shaved down below at a tap. Roughing it here! The sea is a beautiful colour this morning. Yes, it is a nice guard – wish I could be here a week.

Now I'm back in camp again. It was a “steady old job” as the cynical veterans would say. Plenty of time for reading and for discussion of philosophical subjects – I sitting on some boards or lounging on my blankets, spread upon the floor, sucking at my pipe. Sometimes I'd climb the 35 foot ladder to the roof and stand there looking at the countryside spread below or at the glorious blue-green, shimmering sea. Now that I'm back, I realise how utterly contented I was whilst away!

Thursday 4th July to Saturday 6th July 1940

Written several days later.

Three fairly hectic days. A two-day drill order under Brigadiers supervision, at two hours notice. Staccato account:-

The switchboard in an orange grove. Busy; there was an RHQ and 414 Bty. line on this time. “LACE” and “LACE QUEEN” respectively. I was “LACE PIP” I did not sleep for an instant. Dare not; in any case LACE called me every 15 minutes throughout the night. Alone in the grove. George Hignall and Hallows slept about 10 yards away, out of sight and I'd hear murmurs of voices from the lane beyond the grove; sometimes sharp commands from the nearest gun - Jack Chenery's. Ling was in the lane too, on “X” wireless set and Underhill on “H”.

Following forenoon – all very tired – M1 stuck in soft sand as we were rushing madly to a new position. Digging desperately... The whole Regiment roaring past us. Long journey home over awfully rough and dusty tracks. At last we reached a road and for half an hour I had intermittent sleep, the driver expecting me to tumble into the road at any moment.

Camp, a rotten meal and then an hour in which to straighten out our kits and wash and shave, before parade. Maintenance. Pay parade 6:15p.m. We were told that kits were to be ready for the usual pukka Saturday inspection by 7a.m. tomorrow. At 7:15 the battery must be ready to move off for another drill order. I'd just begun to clean my bloody buttons when the signallers were all turned out to get things ready for this drill order.

We were loading vehicles etc. until 9 o'clock. Then I had a hasty snack in the canteen and turned in at 9:30p.m. as the trumpeter sounded First Post. Reveille was at 5a.m. next morning. Somehow we got our kits ready and were on parade at 7a.m. down at the new gun park, a mile from camp. To our horror the OC told us that next week there would be really intensive training. Ye gods! We thought, what is this?

Back from the drill order and maintenance done – more or less – by lunch time. Spent the afternoon in preparing for guard – yes! another weekend spoilt! Rather a “cushy” guard though, at the water tower on the cliffs. We paraded in shorts and puttees and took canvas slacks and slippers with us. Weird night scene, in the guard room below the steel ladder. Lantern; concrete walls and floor and ceiling; large pipes coming up through the floor; slits in the walls; steel ladder disappearing into the tube above. Underhill, Tabor, Watson and Young were with me on the guard. Only five of us, one man always up on the roof with the phone, looking out for suspicious ships or planes. Looking down the tube from above, the guard room looked like a (film) smugglers hide out or perhaps hell.

The orderly officer came at 11:40p.m. Underhill was on the roof then and his voice echoed as he called down the tube to me. I woke up, got out of my net and met the orderly officer climbing the first ladder. After he'd gone I slept again. Heard the reliefs change each time. Once I was awakened rudely when the mosquito net fell down on top of me (a lot of mosquito here; we've all been bitten, despite liberal applications of Dovers Cream). Otherwise I slept soundly. Reckon I had about nine hours slumber – nine hours!

Monday 1st July 1940

We're very busy – little leisure now – getting ready for the move, which will be to Egypt, on a full war basis. Sidney Pond was promoted to Lance-Sergeant in tonight's orders. I'm glad for his sake but guess it means a break-up of the snakes. He's here now, with Stan and I, in the NAAFI, having his last supper in the bombardiers mess.

We grumble still about the NAAFI. “I've no longer any doubt as to who should own Palestine,” I said to John as we were slowly served by a greasy looking Jew from Prussia. “No, Steve!” laughed John Leonard, “Any doubts I had have now been dispelled!” And in the gunner's mess; “Give me some tea,” ordered a bloke. And when he got it, “Take it away! I said tea, not piss!” “Give me egg and chips – and they'd better be hot,” said Hadlow. The Jew put his hands on the plate as he waited for the money. “Nice and hot, yes?” “Take your fucking hands off!' said Hadlow rudely, “Who's is it, yours or mine?”

I read a bit more of “Chaos is come again” How slowly one reads nowadays! Extract:-

“But underneath we're all afraid... and those who shout optimism surely do so because they can't stand the silence...”

Guess this applies to several apparently “keen” blokes in this battery who cry such balls as “Russia will come in on our side now!” “America and Turkey will be with us within a few days!” “We know what we're doing, mate. Just luring the Jerries into a trap!”

Saturday 29th June 1940

Ah! It was a marvellous sleep! The usual depressing fatigues this morning but the signal stores tent was pitched soon after lunch and so from then until teatime Ron Dean and I helped Stan Ling to get the stores ship-shape.

The news is still bad. French Syria has accepted the armistice (but the Polish Brigade there, 6000 men with all arms and equipment, has crossed the border and is now safe in Palestine). The Channel Isles heavily bombed and machine gunned. About 1/5 of Romania has been taken over by Russian troops, “without any incidents”. There is rather vague trouble in the Far East. It sounds as though Japan is trying to seize as much as possible of French Indo China. “Hostilities have started” says the laconic communiqué.

“That's the man I want to see – Adolf” said a Sergeant, looking at a picture in a magazine.“'Oo? “Itler? Bugger'im!” said another of our refined sergeants. “Ah well,” commented a more philosophical three-striper, “Adolf's given us all a job, any'ow!”

The damned sand and dust in this bloody hole! The rotten tea and poor service and deficient stock in the blasted NAAFI here!

The Jews! Give me Arabs. “Mish quise Yehuhdi”

Friday 28th June 1940

A hell of a day. We returned from the guard room to the compound at about 6:20a.m to find that nearly all of us were in the moving party. We had to have all our kit packed and ready for loading by 7:15a.m. and were to parade ourselves at 7:45 for moving off. In addition to packing (absolutely none had been done, of course) we had to wash, shave, change and have breakfast. Somehow, we did it all. Surprising how used to this sort of thing we are becoming.

Cold morning; dark clouds hiding part of Jebel Ebal when the convoy droned slowly out of Nablus. I looked around and felt rather sad. Strange how quickly Nablus and it's surrounding hills became home...

“Aye, you can't sleep here!” said my driver, nudging me into wakefulness.
“Sorry, why not?”
“I'm afraid you'll fall out!”
“Well, you can stop and pick me up if I do"
“Yeah, I'll jack up the lorry and get you from under the wheels”

However, I dozed off, undisturbed, a couple of miles further on and awoke in Tulkarim to see Underhill, in the back of the next lorry ahead, laughing at me.

Tent pitching in ragged ARP formation near our previous site at Nathanya. Hell of a job, I felt like a bag of shit and slacked as much as possible. Bivouac tents this time. I found the kits of Hadlow and Gayler (Cartwright is on holiday) and put them in a tent, with mine. Went to bed at 9:30p.m. slept at once.

Thursday 27th June 1940

Bit of a “panic” today. We are evidently moving very soon – this weekend I should imagine, and temporarily to Nathanya. It will be rotten to leave these spacious, clean billets – the best resting place I've ever had since being called up.

Jack and I went before the OC this morning (No “Prisoner and escort 'shun” business; he just wanted the facts). Somewhat peeved about the damaged rifle, and not particularly interested in our explanations. We thought we were “covered” but apparently a case may be made of the fact that the rifle was being carried at the trail instead of slung, when the accident happened. “There will doubtless be a Court of Inquiry and you will probably have to pay for the damage and I expect it will be very expensive,” he said nastily.

On Brigade HQ Guard tonight. After being buggered about all morning, I felt entitled to a “loaf” so had a bath instead of going on afternoon parade. (Owing to the chaos on which I'd depended, I was not missed.) Marvellous hot bath – not a shower, a bath! How we'll miss these billets! The first time ever that the army gave me uncrowded quarters and some degree of seclusion.

In the guard room now. It's about 7:30 p.m. as I write. A window opposite me affords realistic frame for a bit of wall, tall tree, tin shed, dark trees; above again – high old house fragment. Above the rooftop far higher, the hilltop. One of Jebel ar Turs western slopes.

3:45a.m. Ye gods I'm tired! Have been doing all the reliefs since midnight and didn't get more than ten minutes sleep before then. A prowl up the hill for half an hour; ten minutes rest; change the sentries; twenty minutes rest; another prowl. And – alas! We hear that tomorrow is moving day for the majority of us. There'll probably be baggage loading; tent pitching at Nathanya – altogether little spare time.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wednesday 26th June 1940

We've been told that we are to be fully equipped now. Going on real active service soon, I reckon. Egypt? Syria?

The French accepted the Italian as well as the German armistice terms, of course. Fighting ceased yesterday morning, I believe. Half France to be occupied until the end of the war with Britain. French air force and navy to be handed over. Army to be disbanded... all equipment to be given up, French colonies and mandated territories to cease hostilities (What of our northern neighbour, French Syria?) Jibuti to be handed over to the Italians. (Jibuti, our only exit by sea. The mail ship comes that way, through the Red Sea). Today there was news of another air raid on England. Little damage and few people killed, adds the statement.

Moving from here soon, we reckon. (How I'll miss these lovely billets!) Five of us who were not on duty climbed another slope of Jebel ar Tur this afternoon; might be our last chance. Ling, Hadlow and I climbed the rocks, Chenery and Pond walked up a long sloping gully, about a quarter mile to our left. Some distance from the top we at last sighted the summit – the ruins of an old tower making the general scene rather like those pictures in a novel about a trip to the moon or Mars. At the same time we sighted Pond and Chenery toiling upwards and much nearer to the top than us.
“Come on!” Ling said, “Let's get there first!” With my B5 lungs I had misgivings but tried to keep up with the other two.

Gradually I found myself drawing ahead though. We finished the last furlong at a half trot; I forced my way through the last piles of rough stones, reached the tower and to my joy found I was first by about 20 yards. It was a victory not over my companions but over B5! I can''t be so unfit. Not yet an invalid! Pond and Chenery looked quite picturesque, too. When I looked around, they were coming up through the ruins of an old temple, one carrying the rifle, both looking very business like.
We climbed up to the roof of the tower – probably a sheik's tomb – by means of stone
steps inside. Great thick walls! In one of the upper rooms Ling, Hadlow and I scrawled our names on the walls with bits of charcoal. (I also wrote up, “Eileen Simmons, Southwell, England” All very childish, but it might be our last outing!)

Pond dozed on the roof, in the sunshine. Chenery disappeared somewhere. Having exhausted our imagination below, Ling and I went onto the roof. “Where's Jack?” I asked the recumbent Pond. “Don't know,” said he sleepily. “Here I am!' said a voice – and Jack's head suddenly appeared above the parapet! He had climbed some 25 feet, up sheer wall! It shook me!

Stanley posed us for a group photograph in various attitudes on some stone blocks and broken columns in some excavated ruins at the base of the tower. It took about ten minutes to get us settled – and then Stan accidently released the shutter whilst standing in front of the lens, thus buggering up the snap!

Eventually we came down the steep eastern slope above Jacob's Well. The others got out of sight ahead when Jack and I stopped to climb some cliffs. Then – a slight accident! - I looked around just as Jack, far below, stumbled and fell forward with a crash! I turned hastily downwards; Jack rolled over, looked up at me, then lay still! Shaken, I scurried towards him and fell once myself. He had only grazed his arms and knees. “Sorry for the drama,” he said, “Couldn't raise energy to move. Winded”. The rifle “furniture” around the breech was smashed; it looked a nasty mess. The metal parts were all OK, Jack's first action was to work the bolt and squint along the barrel.

We wandered disconsolately downhill and eventually rejoined les autres. When we reached Nablus Fort, Jack and I went along to the MI room whilst the rest went back to billets. Whilst Jack's cuts were being dressed I scrounged two half-mugs of well stewed tea from the cookhouse. It was nectar! Khamsin weather today.

Afterwards we had supper in the Fort NAAFI and drank two pints of tea each, whilst we gloomily read from duplicate copies of “Palestine Post” Things don't seem too good, be buggered if they do.

Monday 24th June 1940

Ten cigarettes a day is the limit of my ration now. Am going to smoke a pipe more and hope to eliminate cigarettes entirely, eventually.

France has signed Germanys stern peace terms which now need Italy's agreement before hostilities cease.

Found another striking paragraph in “Chaos is come again” as I sat reading during today's siesta. It reminds me too of that haunting little line in one of the Flax of Dream books, by Williamson, read long ago - “O this beautiful human life; so beautiful, so inexpressibly beautiful... tears come into my eyes when I think of it”
Now, today I find:-

“...We are always cheated... Directly we're certain that death is near, then the beauty of the world – all the marvellous, neglected beauty of the world – rises before us, overwhelms us, claims us. We turn to look our last on purgatory – and find we are gazing at paradise...”

Friday 21st June 1940

Had to go to Nathanya today to appear before a medical board. One humourous point – I heard the Battery MO tell his colleagues that I had been X-rayed. “Yes, and where is the radiologist's report?” “Oh, you know the Army,” said the MO apoogetically, “The plates were apparently lost!”

The whole thing rather “shook” me though. They did not want to cure or give advice, only to decide my medical category. The MO rattled off some technical stuff about my chest, a trouble which was “More pronounced on the right side than the left” The others examined me and seemed to agree. “Are you off duty or do you manage to carry on?” they asked. They then discussed grading: -

“Definitely B5, I think,”
“He looks pretty fit though,”
“I'd feel insulted if they put me B5!”
“Don't forget, all this fine weather has failed to make it better,”
“Might be only a temporary condition, though”
“Of course if he's B5, he'll go to a different unit” (Ye Gods! I hadn't realised that! Leave the Yeomanry?)

To my relief, they graded me “D” - temporarily unfit – which means that I'll have a further exam at some later date. It has made me feel rather a pariah though. If the unit went to war whilst I was “D”, I'd have to stay behind...

Thursday 20th June 1940

Desultory fighting still in France, whilst the peace conference goes on. There have now been three air raids on Britain. Few lives lost, so far. I feel a little more confident about the end of all this than I did. Felt terribly hopeless and resigned at first.

Tuesday 18th June 1940

One of our two brother regiments, the 107th, is said to be going to the front, in Egypt. For this purpose, 107th has had to requisition a good deal of our equipment. It seems that Stores have little equipment - 107th took two of our guns as well!

If Germany wins, it will be the victory of a deliberate, efficient machine which strained every cog to succeed against the puny efforts of an ill-disciplined, poorly organised, over confident England. The 107th episode is typical. After all these months of war, it is admitted that only a million men are at present in England, trained and (presumably) equipped to repel invasion.

Up to this weekend, only 8 classes of men – 21-28 – had been called up for military service. The reason given was that there was insufficient equipment for more.
To the vocabulary of “Shook 'em,” “No waiting,” “Straight up” and “Keen, see,” two more phrases can be added. The first is the laconic, “Panic”. It's “panic” when men are dragged from their beds at midnight and sent to look out for parachutists. It was “panic” on June 1st when “the bird plan” was put into operation. The phrase “panic” can of course be used in connection with the old favourites ie: Man seen carrying rifle: -

“What's up, panic?”
“Yeh, Italians forcing a landing on the coast”
“Shoot 'em straight down, boy – no waiting”
“Yeah, I'll shake the buggers”

The second phrase is, “You've had your rations, matey” And that originated when a man came in late for tea and found there was no food left on his table except a dry crust. “You've had your rations, matey” the cook told the complainant, “It 'aint my fault if your pals 'ave ate 'em, is it?” So now, whenever someone says, “No fucking jam left?” or “Is this all I get for my bloody breakfast?” there's at once a cry of “You've had your rations, matey” the irony of which, in such circumstances, is obvious.

Monday 17th June 1940

Went out with Freddie Easter and two men, on the 2a.m. patrol. Magazines charged, rifles in the crook of our arms, so that they could be aimed with a single motion. Freddie was “keen” for action but nothing happened. All the places we visited seemed locked up and peacefully asleep; there was no one in the streets. We moved up the hill to the best quarter, large white houses around and the night air gloriously heavy with the perfume of many flowers. Bright moonlight, beautiful scent; men with rifles and noise-creating heavy boots.

Had two hours sleep, subsequently. Freddie Easter did not sleep at all. Dismounted at 6a.m. or soon after. Rather a rush to be on parade washed, shaved and changed (with room kit in good order) by 7:45, but I did it alright, aided by the nappi who came up into my room and shaved me there, whilst I was getting ready.

Route march this morning! They marched us up Jebel Ebal in what must have been record time for a body of troops. Rather a scramble at times but we reached the top and had a rest there. Splendid view. Far, far away to the north, rising above mists, was a faintly glistening line of snow, rising gradually to a peak. This was Mount Hermon (9150 feet) in Syria, over 90 miles away. I don't think I've ever before been able to see such a great distance (If only I could see a great distance into the future!)

Terribly rough and rocky descent. Eventually, parched with thirst, we reached Jacob's Well, in the valley near Nablus. One of the old biblical antiquities, and said to be the most genuine of them all. In an underground chapel was the well. Women, devotees of some unfamiliar religion (possibly the Greek Church) were crossing themselves there, kissing pictures and what not. The well was very deep – there were candles at the water's surface, a long way down. We all drank of the water. It was crystal-like and cold; absolute nectar. This well was portrayed in a religious picture in my bedroom at The Red Lion, Thorpe. I used to gaze at it as I dressed in the mornings... “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give...”

We spent most of the siesta in having blood tests in preparation for blood transfusions which may latter on be necessary. I'm group “A” whatever that may be.

An uneasy afternoon, full of rumours of news. At 4:30p.m. we were all assembled in a stone building on the platform of Nablus' derelict railway station. This building is generally used as a town cinema. Presently the Colonel came in, pale faced. The old boy looked as though he might have been crying. “It's bad news, alright,” whispered Ling, by my side. “Yes”

The few words he said were terribly emotional... “The French Army has found it necessary to lay down arms... We don't know what may happen now... We may be wondering why we haven't yet been able to do anything to avert this disaster... You may be worrying – like me – about those left behind... We don't know what will ultimately happen to us all... But all we can do now is to carry on with our work here, however trivial it may seem... And to walk about the town proudly, so that the people here can see that, far from being the soldiers of a beaten nation, we are still serving the greatest Empire in the world...” His voice broke and I felt my heart was breaking. 339 cheered but not exultantly.

Some blokes are still light hearted about it - “C'mon boys, we'd better learn the bloody Nazi salute!” Others are almost hysterical. “Oh! I hope England gives in quickly!” “We can't last now; they must give in before the bombing starts...”

Gaynor and Hadlow were upset when they came off guard tonight. “I don't care what happens to us – but England's such a small place” “ - And such a dear little country”.

Sunday 16th June 1940

Lazy morning. Wrote two letters, one to Mad Willie, one to Jack Garratt. They're both serving. In each case I wrote “Heaven knows where you'll be when this reaches you, or where I will be then, for that matter”.

Nothing is certain now; all the things that symbolised permanency are chaotic.
Spent the afternoon cleaning up for guard (Brigade HQ, a 12 hour guard) and mounted at 5:30p.m. Went by lorry in to the heart of the city, as it seemed. Sergeant Easter, in charge of 15 men. Wooden hut for guard room. Two men on the gate, one man inside Brigade HQ, by the Ottoman Bank. Also, at intervals, night patrols.

Slipped into the Brigade NAAFI, for ten minutes. Sat in a wicker chair on a terrace some 20 feet above the street, sipping tea and smoking a Woodbine. There were white paving stones near me and beyond a group of rather tall orange trees, surmounted by still larger trees of the larch family. The orange trees were bearing late and withered fruit. I looked from the street and above, to magnificent Jebel Ebal. I thought, how strange that I, Stephen Dawson, should have been abruptly whipped out of my peaceful known grove and eventually thrown down here, in this unfamiliarness.

10:15p.m. Sitting here with the Sergeant in the blacked out guard room. Frank Langley is wandering about; doesn't seem able to sleep. The first night street patrol goes out at 11:00 tonight. Didn't hear any definite news tonight, except that things are getting rather worse in France.

Somewhere, a bird is making a curious call – just one short, sharp note every few seconds, low pitched.

Saturday 15th June 1940

Found another neat statement in “Chaos is come again” (that book is my only escape from reality, just now, I guess) when I was reading last night: “Nowadays the English have a pathetic faith in the past. Once, they used to believe in the future.”

Hell of a rush to get things glittering this morning. There was only Gayler and I left (Hadlow being on mess duty, Cartwright on guard) so we had to do all, between us. Reveille 5:15, Roll Call 6:05, Breakfast 6:20, Squad Parade (selves and room and kit all ashine) at 8:10a.m.

There have been several complaints lately about the food. It has deteriorated but this is due (as the OC resentfully explained in a special “hollow square” address) to the fact that the war is developing unhappily and also because we are now more or less isolated from home. The blokes were foolish to complain; as an inevitable result a pretext was found for cancelling today's half holiday. (This spoilt my plan for climbing Jebel Ebal with a few others, alas.) The pretext was that our billets were all in shit-order so everyone spent the afternoon in scrubbing the tiled floors, as a punishment. Sequel to our morning work!

(I wonder if the BEF in France, spent the first seven months of the war in bullshit? Probably. Hence they were not ready for the Germans. If so, it is our people at home who will pay the price now...)

Friday 14th June 1940

It is in orders! The laconic statement appeared today:- “All Air Mail Services Suspended”.

Paris has surrendered without any fighting beyond some in the suburbs and the French have retreated to the west of the city. I'm glad! Horrible if that lovely old city had been smashed up. The significance of the event is unaltered, however. The French capital has fallen and the Germans are already marching in. (“Nach Paris!” they used to say last time. But they never got there.)

Usual Saturday spit and polish tomorrow. Spent most of the siesta and some of this evening in cleaning, polishing and scrubbing. Sat on the flat roof finally, cleaning my belt in the failing light. Worked slowly, singing. When I finished I suddenly found that the shadow at my feet was a moon shadow, not a sun shadow. The moon rode high, half towards the full. The two great hills on either side; evening star above the long band of red which stretched right across the western end of the valley. The buildings of the town, un-English in shape, with mosque towers in silhouette against the redness.

“Froggie” French, old soldier, talked in the canteen with the weary cynicism of most old soldiers. “They'll be in Cherbourg soon. That'll shake some of those fellers we saw there when we came across – BEF and all that. There was a lance corporal from Chelmsford there. Saw him in “The Fleece” at Christmas. Ten days leave from France. Wouldn't say where he was serving – BEF and all that. When we landed at Cherbourg there he was, in his shirt sleeves, sweeping shit off the pavement... “Over there”, see? Yeah, he and his mates will be shaky now”.

Thursday 13th June 1940

Half holiday. A hard morning, laying line in hilly country (trying to keep our clothes clean too, so that they'd be OK for Saturday inspection and possible guards).

Idle afternoon. Bugger! I wasted about an hour, dozing in my room! Hadlow was asleep, Gayler getting ready for guard, Cartwright reading. I lay on my bed, gazing thoughtfully up at Jebel at Tur – shadowy; sunlit; crag; grey-green. Dreaming... I woke up, faintly annoyed at having wasted an hours leisure, went down into the garden and had a shower.

Found Sidney reading a tattered Penguin book, “Chaos is Come Again” by Claude Houghton. He tore off the first hundred pages so that I, too, could indulge in the novelty of reading. Quite enjoyable; one of those stories about people, with neat phrasing and good dialogue.

“...He walked slowly towards it (an old house) experiencing the disturbing sensation... that if he were to remain here, the static atmosphere of the place would capture him, paralyse his will, and that the years would pass unnoticed like the shadows of dreams...”
“...Life, love and happiness are all very precarious – little flames in a wind-haunted darkness...”
“...For the eyes were old. They were old – the light of expectancy had flickered out of them – and instantly, the youth of her features acquired the unreality of a mask...”

No sea mail letters for some time – we reckon mails are coming via the Cape. I wrote to Eileen by Air yesterday, explaining why she'd probably not heard from me for some time. Let's hope that the letter gets away before they suspend air mails. It's in the air (unconscious pun). About a dozen Air Mail letters arrived this evening – one for me, from Eileen. The last mail from England?

Wednesday 12th June 1940

The report of Italian troops being in France seems unconfirmed. There do not appear to have been any Italian troop moves yet. Malta has been raided however; Bombs are raining down on Paris as the German Army moves in – within 25 miles of the city now.
The RAF has bombed Turin and Milan (Mad Willie's rapturous talk of “The Scala, Milano,” long ago!) and Naples. (“Napoli, those Italians in “The Golden Grove” Inn on St Annes Hill used to call it. Capri is very near there. “Twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her...”)

The South African AF has raided parts of Italian Somaliland and Libya. So now the war has spread to a second continent. It's teaching us geography, with the aid of my pocket atlas! (Where's Italian Somaliland? Map of Africa, page 48... there it is, on the east coast, a strip from 10 degrees N to the equator.)

A drill order today, watched by various generals. Rumour has it that on their opinion of our efficiency depends our immediate future. Anyhow, everyone did their best. “If we go into action,” I said, “We'll all be saying “Oh get us out of this!” We'll cheerfully return to Gedera and endure lots of bullshit; everything will be preferable to action. Still, I think we'd better go, if we can”. “Yes, the bastards will be in our own homes next”.

Tuesday 11th June 1940

Everything proceeded normally today. Battery drill order and all that. I ran “A” Troop signals – line laying in rocky hills. Strenuous morning and we arrived back at Nablus late for lunch. However, I mentally “buggered” lunch and after a ripping wash went into the NAAFI (decent bombardiers mess here). Had salad, ham and chips followed by two pints of tea (it's lovely tea, quite unlike the maidens piss which we used to get in Nathanya Camp). Listened to the news in the middle of a delightfully lazy siesta. Nothing new, just carefully guarded statements.

In HQ Billets an important notice was pinned-up. It was a diagram (very attractively drawn) showing the method to be adopted in laying-out kits each morning. Very pukka! I laughed hysterically. I'd like to get hold of that notice later on, date it “June 11 1940” and keep it as a souvenir of how one unit of the Middle East army reacted to the news that it now was in the theatre of war.

Snatches of conversation in the bombardiers mess this evening where Jack, Sidney and I sat around a candle-lit table,

“...Russian troops on the Rumanian frontier, they say...”
“Yes, they'll take Rumania now, you see, old boy”
“Well, we've guaranteed Rumania, and Greece and Turkey -”
“How many more have we guaranteed?”
“No! We didn't guarantee Yugoslavia. They wouldn't have it. Knew it would make fuck-all difference”
“Cynical sod!”
“I'm in that state now that nothing could shake me; only the news that my wife had been bombed...”
“Cigarette, Stephen”
“There's a little cafe in Surrey, with brass things around the walls and all that, and an old mill stream gurgling outside. We'd always light our cigarettes thus, at the candle on the table”
“Well, what about it?”
“Oh, nothing, but I'd rather like to be there”
“Yes! With a nice lady and on a summer night, with the old car outside?”

The two hills here I find (on reference to the map) are – to the NE Jebel Ebal, 940 metres and to the SW Jebel at Tur, 881 metres.

Monday 10th June 1940

I'm writing this (can't use the lamp because of the black out) by the light of the torch I bought in Southwell for the journey. Same bulb, same battery!

Just heard the news on the canteen wireless. Italy declared war on the Allies this evening and Italian troops are said to have already entered France. Several British naval vessels sunk in the North Sea. All Allied troops withdrawn from Norway. Fierce fighting in France - “Paris has not fallen”... Italy's Mediterranean “neighbours” not threatened; “no cause to panic” among the inhabitants of Palestine.

But England?

Saturday 8th June 1940

Oh! It's lovely here! I don't believe I've ever been so happy since the war began and the near-contentment of last summer ended. I appreciate this luxury and comfort after all the filth and shit-order of so much camp life. The airy, dust-free rooms, the shelves for our kit, the space around our beds and the head-room; the clean tiled floors; the quietness in this wing and in the room, when we close the door; The morning warmth and the midday coolth – our window catches the early sun.
The mysterious alluring hills above... The crash! of our feet on concrete when the Battery is on parade. Yes! I hope we stay here awhile.

It's exciting too, at times. Never likely to be so monotonous as at Nathanya and Gedera. Already, an unexploded bomb has been found in the enclosure; two Arabs were buried under a fallen house and dug out by B Troop men (one Arab dead, one dying). On Thursday night there was an exciting chase of contraband camels through Nablus, in which one of our drivers had to aid the police. Incidentally he lost his rifle and ten rounds in the chase (hardly an auspicious beginning for the Yeomanry!) and the following day a party of us had to search for it in wild hill country and in a village. The rifle was eventually found by the police (minus the loaded magazine).

Today I applied for permission to make up a hiking party of regulation type (six men, including at least two NCO's, one armed with a rifle and ten rounds) for climbing the smaller jebel which rises to the west of Nablus. I had to interview the OC first! He made me promise on my honour that the rifle would not be laid down for an instant and that the ammo. would be carried in pouches. “If another rifle is lost” he said fearfully, “We shall probably be sent home in disgrace...” However, after I'd made all sorts of solemn oaths and vows the old boy was quite decent and hoped we'd have a good time.

With me were Jack Chenery, Ling, Orrin, Cartwright and Gaylor. Stan and Ted carried water bottles, the rest of us took turns at carrying the rifle. It was an enjoyable climb though there wasn't quite enough rock work. The rocks we did find were lovely and firm, with lots of handholds. We reached the highest point – there was no particular summit – in about an hour and were roughly a thousand feet above the town. Nablus, with it's white, flat roofed buildings and mosques, stretched out at our feet, looking like an aerial photograph.

Damn good afternoon. There was a wind, up on the jebel so it was not too hot. Ever since we came here, the weather has been neither too hot nor too cold – a rare condition of things anywhere. Might as well enjoy ourselves whilst here. If Italy does enter the war, I reckon we'll go straight into a place spelt SHIT.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wednesday 5th and Thursday 6th June 1940

It didn't take us long to pack our kits for the move; then, a “steady old morning” for the advance party. Had plenty of time for a shower after breakfast and then an hour in the NAAFI where we heard the radio news. Silence from Italy, the usual gloomy news from France and Belgium. The OC delivered a brief lecture, saying that we should be in billets at our new station and should “enjoy many amenities” which did not exist at Nathanya. On the other hand, he wanted a good turn-out (“spit and polish!”) all the time, as we should be “under the critical eye of unfriendly hill Arabs” and also in close proximity to Brigade HQ. The length of our stay at Nablus depended perhaps upon the good show we put up etc. There would not be so many duties at Nablus and we should have much more leisure time, he said.

Left camp at 11:30a.m., stopped on the Tulkarim – Nablus road for lunch ( in a rocky hill pass) and reached Nablus at about 1:30p.m. What a change from the monotonous drab scenery we'd known! This was a fertile valley surrounded by rocky hills rising to about 2000 feet, I should imagine ( A spot of climbing in our spare time?) A pretty Arab town. HQ Troop was billeted in a large Arab house with an incredible number of rooms. Stone walls, balconies, mosaic tiled floors and all that. To our chagrin, Ron Dean and I learnt that we were absolutely in charge of this building for the time being and had to get it clean and to get it ready for tomorrows arrival of the main party. So we set squads of men splashing water about the place (there were few tools or implements) and with difficulty restrained them from selecting their own rooms and rushing in with their kits.
Subsequently, I was roundly reprimanded because they had not done enough work and thereafter had to harry them more than ever.

I was not sorry to be detailed as NCO i/c Guard. It was rather short notice and we did no cleaning. There are signs of this being a decent station. Billets, cleanliness and a roof over our heads after all the shit and petty discomforts of tent life. The scenery! The duties – obviously no fire picquet and apparently the guard will consist only of an NCO and six men as at Southwell.
No regimental work, for the time being, anyhow. The troop grouping – each troop has a different house – will make a pleasant change, too.

My diary is still with the signals store (in a brown paper parcel labelled “Signals Stationery AF C2128 etc”) so this is being scribbled originally on some scrap paper, in the guard room. A weird sort of guard, this. We are in a barbed wire enclosure which contains stables, garages, the cookhouse and odd buildings at the moment. In the guard room we put some forms and a trestle table from the cookhouse – the place was quite empty when we came. Of course, we are handy for grub and can help ourselves to cocoa during the night. In one of these rooms there is a ghostly and ancient telephone, partially out of order as it can receive but not transmit.I have a lantern with very little paraffin therein.

There's a mosque tower nearby, from the platform of which a priest makes solemn calls to prayer at intervals. The dark hills loom all around the enclosure and the stars are the ceiling to which the hills are as walls. The local Arabs are supposed to be real buggers for stealing so this is a rough and ready but very vigilant guard – which is a condition that suits me. The 11p.m. reliefs have just gone out. Think I'll doze a bit, lying across the doorway, so that neither acquisitive arabs nor inquisitive Orderly Officer can surprise me.

Morning: Had the usual intermittent sleep from midnight onwards. Each set of reliefs fell over me every two hours. Expected to dismount at 7a.m. but have now been told that this is to be a 24 hour guard.
This place looks grand in the mornings light. Rocky hills! Some blokes are sad at having left the sea but I love hills and shall always love 'em!

Quiet forenoon, once we'd all been back to billets, in ones and twos, to change into shorts. Had some pleasant philosophical, literary and personal experiences discussions with West and Bibby (smoking innumerable cigarettes the while). “Rather nice, a small guard like this,” summarised West, “For twenty-four hours you are detached from the others and become a little community together”. Business was brisk in the afternoon, when arms began to arrive from Nathanya and had to be booked in. Some had to be re-issued almost at once; for awhile it was quite hectic. All went well. It was quite refreshing to have to use the methodical part of one's brain once more.

Now that the Battery has settled in, we find that the OC's statement re fewer duties at Nablus was hardly correct. This Guard is to be doubled and commanded by a sergeant with a bombardier as marching relief. Several times a week there will be a similar guard at Brigade HQ. There will also be troop fire picquet (which however do not need to mount with the guard here).

Tonight my small shit-order guard was proudly relieved by a guard 14 strong. When we fell-in for guard changing I had only three men with me on parade; the others were at their posts.After handing over the contents of the armoury I hurried back to billets and managed to sort my stuff out, roughly, before darkness fell – we've no black out arrangements in my room. I had eventually found quite a decent room (first floor back!) in a quiet part of the house. My three companions were Gayler, Cartwright and Hadlow. Four seems just the ideal number for a room and there's plenty of space for ourselves and our kits. The large, barred window faces about ENE and looks out at the great jebel towering above (rising to about 2500 feet, they say).

Tuesday 4th June 1940

Battery parade as usual, this morning. We were “shaken” when the OC was heard to say casually to BSM Essler, “We shall be packing this morning, Sergeant-Major”. A party of signallers fell-out for packing up the signals stores, the rest of us carried on with buzzer reading and what not. Bewildered, we rapidly absorbed the “straight up” rumour. The Regiment was splitting up; only 339 Battery was going away. It is possible that we may not be alongside 414 again for a long time. 339 is moving into the hills and will probably occupy the fort at Nablus. Moving this week!

Sorry to leave Nathanya Camp and especially regretful at leaving the beach. However – it'll break the monotony. Don't think we'll be at Nablus long, either.

5:30p.m. I was NCO i/c Stable Picquet, supposed to mount from 7p.m. tonight until tomorrow's reveille. I fell out with the duty men at 4p.m. and then learnt that all duties, including mine, were being taken over by 414, in consequence of our forthcoming move. Very nice!

I just saw Pond and Chenery. “Why aren't you ready for going on picquet?” demanded Pond.
“Fuck picquet,” I said, “Let's go for a walk along the beach tonight. Our last chance, maybe”
“But picquet...”
“Ah, bollicks to the picquet,” I said.
“You bloody fool, you'll be “run” for it,” cried Sidney
“Can't you see?” said the cynical Chenery, “He's been relieved. This big talk is just sham. A stand for freedom and all that – bah!”

Have just been notified that I'm in the advance party and leave tomorrow at midday. So I shall pack now and will put this book in my attache case. Shall later try and smuggle the case, somehow, into the signals stores. My case (the only one in possession of an OR in this Battery, I do believe!) usually travels with the signals stores.

Monday 3rd June 1940

Black-out tonight from 9p.m. It is probable that this will occur every night whilst the present tension lasts. Good-bye lights! Or perhaps only “Auf Wiedersehen”. The Italian Cabinet meets tomorrow.

Went back to my tent (everything in darkness) and found “Wilbur” Underhill and John Goodwin, sitting on my bed across the doorway, singing. They were singing and humming some of the lovely waltzes that emanate from our enemies lands. Lilting Strauss waltz music... Austria under the Swastika... What a bloody silly world it is!

Sunday 2nd June 1940

High Noon 1940

Things perfectly normal today – reveille 7a.m. and all that. Second day of the khamsin. Dust, wind and heat. The wind tore the tent; dust was everywhere, most unpleasant of all the khamsin things. The heat – 110F in the shade.Sidney and I found coolness in the afternoon. We swam, down at the beach. Ah! It was lovely! “And this is war!” said Arnold, the new BSM, swimming up to us. “Well! It's a matter of luck. We might just as easily have been sent to France.”

Meanwhile in Europe, the grim evacuation of the routed BEF continues. They are embarking at the Dunkirk beaches, constantly shelled, bombed and machine gunned. Hundreds of thousands of men... The fort of Calais is still holding out...

War with Italy is thought to be imminent.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Saturday 1st June 1940

I awoke suddenly. It was quite dark still, except for the moon. A moment later, a bugle sounded reveille. I sat up, bewildered. Was I dreaming? It couldn't be reveille. The note rose and fell weirdly... di-da, - di-da, - di-dah... I peered at my watch. 4 o'clock new time (3 a.m. actually).

“Are you awake Cecil?” (Orrin is nearly always awake first, whatever time I open my eyes.)
“Yes, Steve”
“What the hell's going on?”
“We're at war with Italy. The drivers all went away an hour ago – ammunition lorries. 414 Battery are all up already.”
“Straight up?”
“Yes! Italy declared war at midnight!”

We awoke the others and lighted the lantern. Bewildered still, I folded my blankets neatly. We wondered what to wear in these circumstances and eventually donned canvas. Doubtless the ”ride” would be postponed... Dean, Chenery and Pond called at various times whilst I was dressing. “Heard the news, Steve?” “Yes. The bloody dagoes would start something now, when England is right in the shit.” “It said last night on the news,” said Pond gloomily, “that the remnants of the BEF were being evacuated from Belgium under terrific fire from guns and planes...”

Chenery told me he'd been called at 1a.m. and, coming past my tent, felt inclined to break the dramatic news to myself, deep in slumber beneath my mosquito net. He decided not to do so in case I might be horribly blasé and assume he was “shaky!”

(Actually, “War with Italy” was noting but an other bloody, bastard rumour! Later, we heard that Italy had given us a 24 hour ultimatum... Gradually we learnt the truth. Relations with Italy had suddenly taken a turn for the worse and war was thought to be imminent. However until about midday, everyone thought we were really in the “theatre of operations”.

Cartwright was on the camp exchange last night and said that at 9 p.m. the message came from HQ: “Bird Plan To Be Put Into Operation At Once”. (Thereafter things had begun to move, he said.) Hasty parade in the dark at 4:30 a.m. Unwashed, unshaven. HQ Sigs. marched down to the stores and loaded a lorry. Delph, one of the specialists, kindly went to my tent and brought back my pullover, pipe and pouch and two bars of chocolate.

We had to lay a buried line from a water tower on the cliffs to the camp. We found Samson and Bryceland by the tower, on sentry-go. Climbed to the top with the line; three wooden ladders, then a thrilling steel ladder up a round tube to the flat roof.
Left the phone there and started off. Rosy glow to the east, but I couldn't stop to watch dawns! When I reached the foot of the “tube” again, I peered through a slit window and saw a strip of blazing sun, just peeping above the horizon...

Digging along the roadside, burying the line about six inches deep. Digging through sand, dust and rock. Got relieved for breakfast at 8 o'clock (I'd been glad of that chocolate) Had a wash but no time for a shave. We worked on in a dust khamsin. My stubble of beard looked pretty rough by dinner time (about 1:30). We were almost exhausted now and clouds of dust swirled about us. It took the heart right out of us when we learnt that all this was perhaps only a rehearsal in case there was a war in the middle east.

The job was finished at about 4p.m. and we returned to camp. My kit had been neatly stacked by some unknown, but several, less fortunate, had been reprimanded. (Sweat drips from my face as I write and smudges this paper. It's about 110F today.) The emergency guard which went on duty at 1 a.m. and came off this morning with an hour for cleaning and breakfast, got into trouble when they remounted, as buttons were not clean. A bloke in Ron Dean's tent has to stand to his kit tomorrow morning (Sunday) because his boots, ridiculously “boned” and polished, were found to have no laces in them during OC's tent inspection.

Utterly disgusted I sat in my tent – dust everywhere. “This is where patriotism gets you” I said. “Lets hope the Italians soon get here and then maybe they'll let me join their Army.” However, Sid, Ron and I had a glorious shower and changed our clothes. It was teatime but we all said, venomously, “Fuck tea!” We had to fuck something! Then I had my beard torn off at the nappi wallah's and went to the bombardiers mess.

Most of the emerging guards were suddenly cancelled. It seemed the panic was over, although lorries and guns, camouflaged, were still distributed secretly around the camp. Sid and I had a game of chess and later ordered supper in the mess. Peace at last!

I didn't return to my dusty tent until 9:30. Then I turned in – 9 hours deep slumber!

End of Morning Mists 1940

Friday 31st May 1940

A fresh stage in our riding was reached today, when we practised leaping in and out of the saddle. When standing still, one grasps the arch of the saddle and the reins, with both hands. Then you crouch, head low, swing the right leg forward – back! - and follow it up onto the horses back! Good heavens! I thought, when told to do this. But at the second attempt I found myself sprawling up top and soon wriggled forward into the saddle. There-after, this exercise seemed quite easy. Next, however, we had to trot in a circle (without stirrups) and leap off and on again, in turn. Really, this sort of thing seemed to savour of Cossack and circus artiste. Nevertheless, nearly all of us were able, eventually, to perform even this “unbelievable evolution”.

Practice black-out tonight, from 7:45 to 8:45p.m. (Oh alas! Has that grim ogre of English nights overtaken us? Will it, even here, be farewell to the lights?)

Went to bed with gloomy thoughts of the morrow. The clocks had to go forward so we lost an hour's sleep. Reveille 5:30, Riding 5:45, Breakfast God knows when, First Parade (washed, shaved and correctly dressed in shorts and puttees) at 8:10a.m. After parade, change into canvas (third change since reveille!) and stand to kits for inspection. Kits to be stacked in a pukka way of course, by this time.

How can we do it?

Wednesday 29th May 1940

A little riding and a good deal of digging, nowadays, for signallers.
News: British troops retreating “in good order” towards the Belgium coast.

Thoughts of the morrow spoilt this half holiday! First we heard that kits were to be stacked in a more profuse and meticulous way in the near future. In addition to the present arrangement of kit we are to place battle dress blouse and slacks, neatly folded, upon the bed boards. Then, on top of our SD slacks we shall place KD tunic (showing five buttons); this to be topped by the second KD tunic (which has no buttons) folded back-to-the-front. Above this we shall place the two KD slacks appropriately folded and on the crest of the whole ruddy pile a camouflaged shrapnel helmet (with red and blue flash to the front).

All that bullshit is one cause for gloom. The second reason is that signallers have to parade for riding school at 5:45a.m. tomorrow. Presumably we have to rise, wash, shave, dress and stack our kits in the 15 minutes between reveille and parade.
Oh, hell!

Tuesday 28th May 1940

Pond and I, in the canteen, during siesta this afternoon, tuned-in the radio to Berlin and heard the news in English. An event of “pride and joy” for the German people was announced: King Leopold of Belgium had made terms with the Germans. These Terms (unconditional surrender) had been accepted and the Belgian Army no longer existed. Calais had been taken by the Germans some days ago but the Ostend forts were still being held “by the enemy”.

In the evening news from Daventry: it was confirmed that the Belgian Army had ceased to resist but added that several thousand Belgians had escaped and were now fighting with the French. Nothing was said regarding Calais and Ostend...

Delightfully calm letter from my Mother today, “When the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium it was a bit of a shock. Anyhow, the war has really started now and I expect Italy will be in any minute and that will affect you my dear...” She also gave me details of Rupert Brooke's death place. “Rupert Brooke died at Scyros (an island) April 23rd. He was buried in an olive grove - “One of the loveliest places on this earth with grey-green olives round him, one weeping above his head, the ground covered with flowering sage, bluish-grey and smelling more delicious than any flower. The path up to it from the sea is narrow and difficult and stony; it runs by the bed of a dried up torrent”. Perhaps you'll go there one day!”

If only I could! And who knows? If Greece is attacked, there may well be British troops in the Aegean Sea.

Sunday 26th May 1940

The whole Regiment paraded in hollow square this morning whilst we watched in puzzlement from within the guard tent. The Colonel spoke – we couldn't quite catch the words – and then everyone mysteriously stood silent, looking gloomily at the ground. Next they sang “God Save the King” and when the echoes had died away in the still air, they dispersed. This rather shook us! Later we learnt that the King, far off in England, had ordered a day of National prayer. So the Regiment had assembled for the reading of a Collect and the saying of the Lord's Prayer.

“At this moment,” the Colonel had said, “A battle is raging in Europe, the result of which may or may not affect all which we hold dear...”

Saturday 25th May 1940

Today it was confirmed, on the radio, that Boulogne was now occupied by the German troops. It was also announced that no further war news would be given until the present battles was concluded...

In Palestine, the Essex Yeomanry had a strict inspection of the men's KD shorts and of the tent floor mattings. With one form of bullshit and another, I've worn four different uniforms today. First, riding kit, secondly KD shorts, shirt, and puttees, thirdly battle dress blouse, slacks and gaiters, fourthly shirt and canvas.

Air raid alarm rehearsal this morning. The whole Regiment – and NAAFI staff and native (“Wog”) tradesmen etc doubled to their allotted trenches.

On guard tonight. All signallers – we only do regimental duties at weekends now. I felt as though I were far in the depths of apathetic misery as I spent the afternoon in preparing for the ordeal of guard mounting. One consolation – being a signals guard, George Hignall was NCO i/c Guard and two of my tent companions were also gloomily cleaning-up all the afternoon. (Cracknell and Naden)

Guard Mounting went OK. The bloody old rigmarole, far more complicated than at Southwell, passed slowly - “104th Essex Yeomanry Regiment RHA Guard Picquet and Other Duties 'Shun!” There was a prisoner! Fitton was found asleep on sentry-go the other night and is now under close arrest in the guard tent, awaiting removal to “the glasshouse” at Jerusalem, where he'll spend 14 days. Resigned to his fate. The first man in the battery to have an award of detention. I was supposed to be awake all night, watching Fitton when I wasn't marching the reliefs; however I got fed-up with this and eventually, in between the reliefs, got a total of about 3 1/2 hours sleep.

Thursday 23rd May 1940

Morning ride under an almost frantic officer. Remarkably caustic! I get less of his abuse than formerly, thank heavens; he has found fresh victims. After a very short break there was a “panic” and we all fell-in for digging. We hastily finished off an AA gun pit on a hillside and were rewarded by the grant of the half holiday we didn't receive yesterday.

It's been a pleasant afternoon in the mess, sitting by the wireless set. Got the German news via New York which gave quite a different version to that of Daventry.
“Those two great empires (France and Britain) will be beaten and they will perish.”

Afterwards, Podgie Pond dozed and woke and dozed again beside me, whilst I read the “Southend Standard” - a month old – and twiddled wireless knobs. Very soothingly, Eastern music throbbed monotonously from Cairo whilst I read of familiar places and familiar names.

Pond is well-known as an anti-something. Anyhow, he's in favour of the co-operative state and a bit of a fascist. Must confess, he's rather converted me, also. This morning a specialist was shouting in the lines, “Fall in the Fifth Column, under Bombardier Pond!” It sounded rather funny. Sidney interviewed the crier. “Gunner Humphereys,” he said, “I have two witnesses to prove that you accuse me of being a Fifth Column man, presumably an espionage and sabotage agent. You must come before the OC with me and prove your charge.” Humphereys thought he really meant it and was “shaken”!

Wednesday 22nd May 1940

Riding and what not in the morning but later there was a sudden “panic”. All spare men in camp, including signallers, were rounded up and ordered to dig. It was a half holiday but that was cancelled. Insult being added to injury, we had to parade again at 2:20p.m. instead of enjoying siesta until 3:30p.m.

We continued digging (ARP) until 5:15p.m. by which time we were somewhat fatigued.
Jack Chenery returned from As Luj this evening and as Podgie Pond is back from hospital also, we are all together again, now.

Tuesday 21st May 1940

All normal routine for the signallers – ie. riding school, drill orders, buzzer reading and the monotonous maintenance period – has been suspended for a couple of days, in favour of ARP. Yes! We've been digging trenches! Trenches to protect men and trenches wherein our ammo (oh yes! We now have lots of shells!) may be stored.

Hard work yesterday, digging ammo pits. Today, however we were in the personnel trenches and this proved more of a steady old job. There was little room in the trench for swinging our tools, so one man would use a pick whilst his half-section, armed with a spade, would stand-easy. Then the spade man would throw out the dislodged earth whilst the pick worker stood-easy. And so on.

For the last hour this afternoon no one, from gunner to sergeant, was very keen. We leaned on our tools, talking and smoking, like typical British workmen, or scratched at the earth with only casual interest; the trench had become deep and we were pleasantly free from observation of an exterior and superior nature.

The Germans have over-run Holland and Belgium and for several days now have been pouring across France through a great gap in the French lines...

Less rumour of war with Italy. Rumours are more concentrated ie. less possible destinations are mentioned, now. It's Egypt – or else Syria! - and later on France – or Norway!

Saturday 17th May 1940

Second day of the Khamsin. This morning the temperature at 10:30 a.m. was 99F in the shade and 110F in the sun. The temperature was probably higher still in the canteen. One sat there soaking in sweat, so that arms and hands gleamed as if polished (my pulse was a hundred as I sat there!) and then, when one stepped out into the sunshine at, presumably 110F, it seemed distinctly cooler.

However we can stand this sort of heat better now, for instead of terribly hot and dusty battle-dress slacks with gaiters and tropical shirts, we have begun to wear shirts, shorts and puttees. They look quite soldierly altogether! For walking out in the evenings, we have khaki drill tunics and slacks.

Thursday 16th May 1940

Just as I passed the NAAFI concert hut, a moment ago, they were singing – to the thudding rhythm of the same Yeomanry band which used to play at our battery dances – a half-gay, half-sad song called, “Nobody's Sweetheart Now”. I thought as I walked on, “Jack Cracknells in there and I guess he'll notice the irony of that tune tonight”. For this afternoon, I, as Orderly Bombardier, gave him a letter which said his fiancee was through. He's not the first to have such news. Funny that blokes to whom it means so much, lose their loves, whilst I, with my love affairs as entangled, in England, as they ever were...

Things are getting sticky in the Mediterranean! Danger of Italy declaring war has suddenly become strong! In Egypt especially, there are alarums and preparations significantly similar to those in England last summer. Now, we may be in the war, after all.

ARP! Trenches are being dug in the camp and certain ARP plans are being formulated.
The latest saying is, - I started it (said he proudly) - “Look out! Here they come!” The correct response may be either, “Man the guns!”, “Take cover!”, or a more stolid and resigned, “Yes, no waiting.” If, however, the audience is too dull to say any of these and says, stupidly, “Here comes what?” or something, the alarmist makes a noise with his tongue, as of aeroplanes diving and zooming.

Rifle and revolver shooting (including in the former case, ten rounds “snap” at 300 yards, wearing a respirator). I got 26 with the revolver, (bloody bad) and 45 with rifle (a pass).

Wednesday 15th May 1940

Artfully evaded doing any real work until break. A little of my former energy is now returning. It was awful to feel as buggered-up as I did a few days ago!

(Holland has laid down arms and surrendered – already! British troops are getting into action in Belgium.) Three blokes have requested to transfer to a Western Front Unit – we feel terribly “out” of it here. Several others are only waiting to see what happens to this initial request before they also put in for transfers.

Podgie Pond is in hospital (he's been away for more than a week, suffering from a boil on the face. He only reported sick to have it squeezed!) but when he returns we'll probably push our names in the hat, if there is any chance.

Tuesday 14th May 1940

A pleasantly languid day today; I had to “go sick” this morning instead of tomorrow and was duly sent (after an hours waiting) to Haifa, by ambulance. Quite a cheery ride; none of my six companions seemed really ill. We reached Haifa Hospital after about two hours and waited. We heard the MO talking to the orderly – fragments... “What have we got?” - “Jaundice... sand fly...bronchitis... - fever”. No one around me seemed bronchial.

“You got bronchitis old boy?”
“No, sand fly”
“It must be you, mate!” laughed someone.

And it was! “Suffering six months months from bronchitis. Please X-ray.” read the form which I took to the X-ray department after a preliminary examination. Came back on the ambulance at 2p.m. without hearing the result of the X-ray. After Binyamina there were only three of us left (the other two were discharged men – my six companions of the mornings ride had all been detained) so I had full value for my money and lay down on the seat, haversack under my head. Pleasant to lie there, lethargic, “twixt sleep and waking”, watching the blue sky, clouds or tropical trees appear in the small window above me.

Monday 13th May 1940

Cold and shivery today! I crept about looking like a corpse and was hardly cheered when blokes kept saying, “Good Lord, you look pretty queer, Steve!”

Drill order today, which nearly finished me off. I don't think I've got any tropical disease, such as sand fly fever or dysentery. From the symptoms, upon which I am not sufficiently an introvert to wish to dwell, it seems I've got a dose of good old English influenza. With a great effort of will I've just made my bed and washed; now I'll turn in, should be asleep by 9 p.m.

Sunday 12th May 1940

Felt like death warmed up, today. A sultry, windless day and I seemed quite inert physically and exceedingly depressed mentally. Only happiness today was when Underhill and I lay on beds in my tent and told each other ghost stories. Lovely to lounge there, smoking, effortlessly absorbing a well-told story.