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

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