Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Wednesday 13th March 1940

Sunny day. Stan Ling and I had the first taste of freedom since leaving Southwell. It was a half holiday, the towns were in bounds, and we, alone in 339 Battery, applied for and obtained a pass to Rehovot. Went to the Battery Officer, where I drew a rifle and ten rounds, being in charge of the “party”. “You are to bring this man back by 22:15, Bombardier Dawson”, snapped BSM Essler in his clipped speech. “If he won’t come back, you are to shoot him,” he added, eyes aglint. Even Sergeant-Majors can be humorous!

Stan and I came away and met the Signals Officer, Mr Adams. He chatted to us some time about “getting the right men in the right slots,” saying he wanted Stan to be store man once more and perhaps to take over NCO i/c Wireless. Stan however said he’d be quite happy on the exchange as before and ECA said easily, “Oh well, I daresay we can arrange that, Ling” He said he’d like also to get me back as NCO i/c HQ Troop Signals. “Ah well, don’t let me keep you,” he went on, “I expect you want to get away…” I always feel awfully “at home” with ECA – almost as though I’m in the peacetime Yeomanry again. He has not altered a bit.

Military bus rattled on into Rehovot, a town which centred around one wide street with broad, tree-lined pavements and white buildings. We left the rifle in the Police Station – and we were free. Free, for the first time since leaving Southwell!
We bathed in this freedom. We strolled along the sunlit street, gazing in every shop window (each window with a facia board of cryptic Hebrew characters) and realised as we saw the prices of goods, that the bloody Arabs and Jews around our camp were twisting us right and left, so to speak.

We had coffee (first since England!) at a German café, bought pipe-cleaners, shoe polish, Palestinian cigarettes, a skein of darning wool, chocolate, buttons, an olive wood cigarette case… Stan bought a really good camera. We were in the shop about an hour, whilst Stan made up his mind. The shop people laughed gently; they had lovely soft voices. They were all quiet different to any tradesfolk we’d met since coming away. They were not twisting us! They were friendly and obliging.

We were some time at a French watch makers shop. There I bought this note book (40mils), a new wristwatch strap (50mils) and had the watch face cleaned and the glass seccotined so that dust could not penetrate. The old boy would not charge for the latter items. He gave us cigarettes and talked about the Australian, French and English Armies! And the Legion Etrangera! And Germany. “But we shall win“, he ended confidently.

They spoke broken English everywhere except in the wool shop. Only German there!
“Deutsch?” “Jahr!” “Do you speak German?” “Not speak German” I said, in the most awful accent, I daresay. Rather a business to explain that I wanted a small skein of grey darning wool. They cheerfully turned the shop inside-out to get me wool of the right type, for which I gave them 6 mils.

We had high tea at a Hebrew café. As the word “Freulich” appeared over the door, I first impressively ordered a German dish. Apparently they were Palestinians not Germans and my remark dumbfounded the waitress, absolutely. However she knew about a dozen words of English, just enough to let us order something! (Later, I’ve learnt that “Freulich” is German and means “Happy” or “Gay”.)

When we stepped out it was well past nightfall and instinctively, we’d both anticipated black out streets. But of course, there were lights everywhere, gleaming among the trees and before the white houses with their shutters and sun-balconies. The first time either of us had been in a lighted street since about last August!

After some difficulty we found the cinema, where the evening performance had just started. “The Mystery of Treasure Island!” An English film (Hebrew sub-titles) of fairly recent origin. Good sound apparatus. No plush seats. We took back stalls (47mils each) This film was so melodramatic as to be burlesque. Actually it was many episodes of a serial film (of the continual-climax type) run together. We roared with laughter as the hero and his party socked men on the jaw every few minutes and had the most horrifying experiences which, ludicrously, always left them unscathed. “Ah! That’s shaken him!” I exclaimed as the hero threw the villain down a 100 foot cliff (after a desperate struggle on the slopes of a lava-spewing volcano!) “No!” said Stan confidently, “He’ll be alright, you see!” And sure enough, the villain was as active as ever in the next shot!

This one film ran from 7p.m. until 11p.m. but we had to leave at 10 o’clock I case our bus appeared. (Oh! I forgot! The pass expired at 10:15 but we found, in the afternoon, that arrangements had been made whereby the military bus would not return from Tel-Aviv via Rehovot until either 10p.m. or 11p.m. – almost certainly the latter.) Accordingly we’d called at the bus office and garlic-smelling busmen allowed us to use their phone. I rang up the Camp, was put through to Sergeant Major Essler, and told him our fix. This was at six o’clock. “Of course, we could probably get a lift, sir” Silence. “That will be alright, Dawson. Come back on the bus at eleven.” Bless him! No worried instructions. He calmly gave us extra leave, trusting us.

Therefore we drew our rifle and waited in Rehovot’s main street at 10p.m., just in case. The bus did not come so we went into an adjacent small café for coffee. It was kept by a Polish man and his wife. There were two soldiers there, two Egyptian “dobbie wallahs” and the station master of Rehovot. He and the wallahs all spoke broken English. I flashed a pound note(P£1) and the lady, horrified, indicated she could not change it. The station master (in magnificent uniform) laughed. “She says, are you an Australian?” he said. They think Australians are the only soldiers with money, here. They are about right!

Everything went perfectly smoothly today! The bus came at 11 or so, and we stopped it, and reached camp at 11:30p.m. We’d had a damn good outing. It was ripping to think that Stan had the same ideas of a pleasant outing as I had. Usually a trip with soldiers is a rather aimless wandering around and drinking, ending in rowdy misery.

When I reached my tent, someone had made my bed for me and someone else had been up to fetch my washing. (Sid Pond and Doug Stiles respectively, I later found.) It was like coming home. And I lit a candle and had it alight for half an hour without complaints from conscientious sentries. So I sorted out my parcel, put everything neatly away, cleaned my boots and cap.

And, happy, turned in.

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