Thursday, August 28, 2008

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?”
“Sure!”

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”!

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