Sunday, August 24, 2008

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”.

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