Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thursday 25th December 1941

Late last night, George obtained a few bottles of Johnnie Walker, so we sat in the dim tent in a circle, passing the bottles around. “Froggie” French and other old regulars sang and talked and tipsily jested about India.

This morning, in celebration perhaps of Xmas Day, we had porridge and sausages for breakfast. Then we hastily fell in to march to the railway. Each man carried pack, haversack, water bottle, rifle, respirator, tin hat, and four blankets. We wore our greatcoats (tattered) and various types of head gear. (“HQ Troop -'shun! Right turn! Quick march!”)

It was about a mile to the station. Not bad for those at the head of the column, like myself. But there were many weary stragglers. By the railway we were met by Major Howell (2nd i/c of the Regiment). He had apparently come up on board the Officers Mess lorry and carried nothing – not even a water bottle or tin hat or field glasses.

After a few words with Captain Jones, the unpopular new battery captain, Major Howell took his hands out of his greatcoat pockets and addressed us: “Disgusting! You look like a rabble of prisoners.” (Is he sympathising with out plight? I wondered. But no!) “414 Battery,” said their ex OC smugly, “Marched here like an RHA battery. But you -” We stolidly listened, Stan Ling leaning heavily on his rifle beside me. “All right!” said the 2nd i/c, “Now you can stand to attention and keep holding your kits for two hours, or until it pleases me to stand you at ease.” He stamped angrily away. Five minutes later the battery captain returned, looking rather uncomfortable and, telling us to put our kits down and carry on smoking, added, “What Major Howell said was hardly right, as 414 were not carrying four blankets, like you”.

He was telling us!

The train – a goods train – came in presently. There were 24 of us in a 10 ton truck with sliding doors. The floor was covered with dirty straw which stank of paraffin or petrol or both. Perhaps our fathers, accustomed to the trucks (chevaux 6 hommes 40) of France some 25 years ago, would have been thoroughly comfortable, but this was a new experience for us.

Clattering eastwards, after some hours of crossing a flat waste of stone and dust, the scenery gradually merged into a flat waste of scrub and dust. Clattering eastwards; where to, ultimately? Everyone has said at one time or another that we'll get another job apiece when we get down. The signaller swears he'll be a driver, the driver wants to be a gunner. Others are determined to get out of the Regiment – into the Field or another RHA regiment or into the Field Security Service (mysterious haven of interesting work). But will they? No! Not one! They'll all plod wearily grumblingly on as before, hoping for something to turn up!

Lunch by the railside near Charing Cross. Several sausages per man, and a drop of rum in the tea. We rattled and jolted on. Stan Ling and I managed to make a brew of sorts, despite the jolting of the truck, on a broken primus.

Badin, I was standing in the open doorway, smoking a pipe. Near the line, beyond a low hill, a white cloud shot up into the air. Bomb? I thought instinctively. Or mine? But of course not! It was a great splash of sea spray! We were running along the coast.

I looked out again to see the desert at dusk. We were nearing the Sidihanaish area. Slightly undulating ground, small scrub bushes, wet sand and water puddles. What a Christmas Day! We slept as we sat, huddled around the sides of the truck. Miraculously, we did sleep, too, despite the cold. We reached Daba at midnight after 15 hours in the truck. There was half a mug of hot tea for each man here. It was glorious.

When I awoke again it was dawn – a very dull dawn. My grey-faced, stubbly-chinned companions were scrambling about the steel truck. It might have been a scene inside a submarine. At about 9a.m. we reached a station near Alexandria – the very station I left to go on board ship for Tobruch, last month. Here we detrained and had a breakfast of sorts. It was a sunny morning and Boxing Day.

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