Sunday, October 12, 2008

Thursday 30th October 1941

I'm writing this in the Toc H Hostel, Rue Stamboul, Alexandria. Yes! A far cry from Base Depot RA! I must begin at the beginning.

Having been granted the usual 5 days camp leave and being settled in at the Base, I sped into Cairo. Ah! The delightfulness of a first afternoon's liberty! Off the tram and into the Bar American for coffee with cream. Then I found a good watchmakers, and left my watch there for a cleaning. He told me it was now worth £4-10-0. I bought it at Nathanya for approximately 50/- after some haggling.

I bought a pipe, petrol lighter and flints (remembering the Tobruch match shortage) and some American Edgworth and English Waverly tobacco. (The first time I've been able to obtain “Waverly” since leaving Blighty). Whilst in the “smokes” shop I also bought a 4 pts. cigar – with ornate band! I strolled in the streets, looked in the shops and booked a seat at the flicks. I posted a “Brooke” to old Jack Chenery in Tobruch. I bought a red silk scarf also to keep up my morale “in the bluey”.

After supper and music at the Empire Services Club I had a gharri ride through quiet, tree-lined moonlit streets and eventually arrived at the flicks just as the programme commenced. I had a decent seat in the balcony with plenty of leg room and sent the boy for lemonade and puffed at my huge cigar and felt like a million dollars! Incidentally, the film was a good swashbuckling show - “The Mark of Zorro” - which I saw in the old “silent” days when I was quite a small boy. No, nothing that happens later can compare with the first hours of freedom!

One afternoon in Cairo, when I was on a tram, I met a soldier who'd only just arrived in Egypt. He kept peering out of the windows as we whizzed through the dirty streets, full of filthy Arabs, in the Abbassia district. “Is this Cairo?” he asked finally. “Well, I reckon so,” I replied taken aback. “You see, I only landed yesterday and this is my first afternoon off. I believe my unit is going up to the desert tomorrow” (Careless talk!) “Oh, yes?” “This is a dirty looking place,” he remarked gloomily. “Ah! We're not in the European district yet! Then you'll appreciate this colourful, cosmopolitan metropolis of the East!” I said.

“Can you pick up any girls here?” he inquired hopefully. “Yes, I believe one can meet fairly decent girls – French and Greeks – at the tea dances at the Kursaal.” “Good! And what about Sharia Birker? I've heard a lot about that!”
“The brothels? They're supposed to be pretty grim! A dreadful smell... fat Arab women.” “Ah well,” he said, “I must just have a look round there. For the experience”
At this moment a soldier on my other side leaned forward and shouted across the crowded tram, (trying to be helpful) “Did you say you wanted to go to the Birker?” The “Blighty wallah” blushed, said, “Oh! I say -” and subsided. “Can you direct me to the Kursaal?” he asked me later, much subdued.

In my tent at the Base was a queer hawk, named Robins. When he heard I was a rat of Tobruch he said, in a dopey fashion:- “I've been there several times. To fetch prisoners down” “Several trips through Bomb Alley!” I said, with some respect, “Were you bombed much on the way?” “Oh once or twice. We lay down in the sand -” “In the WHAT?” “In the sand”.
“Do you mean to tell me you have made several journeys to Tobruch across the desert? Recently?” “Our last trip was in July” “Did you have an escort of tanks?”
“No, but there were four military policemen with revolvers”

(“He's mad,” I thought. “Bomb happy. Must be”)

“Ah! And you got through two German armies like that? Several times? With prisoners? Any trouble?”
“No. Well we saw a few Germans once or twice” “They didn't interfere with you?”
“No”

(“Yes, obviously a neurasthenic case!”)

“Did you go through Mersa Matruh? And proceed up the Sollum escarpment? Hellfire Pass?”
“I didn't notice the names of the towns,” he said vaguely, “There were a few mud huts...”

(“Quite an interesting psychological case”)

“Did you have any difficulty getting through the wire at Tobruch, or the minefields, or the tank traps?” “No, we got through OK”
“I suppose the British artillery fired a good deal,as you were approaching the perimeter?”
“Well, there were a few bangs... somewhere... don't know if they were firing at us though”

(“You'd have soon found out if you'd ever been there,” I thought, “You bloody, lying bomb-happy dope!”)

“Your story,” I said urbanely, “Is hard to believe as I'd always imagined Tobruch to be besieged by land, since April.”
“No,” he assured me, “We got through OK Several times”
“By the way, what regiment are you in?”
“106 RHA” (Ah, bomb happy, poor sod”)
“So you were in Greece and Crete were you?” I said sympathetically. “Oh no! You see I've been in the RASC since 1939”

I gave it up.

A few days ago, just after my Camp leave commenced, they announced on roll call, that all men who had served in Tobruch were to parade at the battery office. I thought it was some tripe - “Have you ever had dysentery?” or something – So didn't attend. But someone came from the parade and told me an unbelievable truth. So I filed unobtrusively across and slunk into the back rank of the parade just in time to have my name taken, with those of fifty other rats, for 7 days out of camp leave.

Bob Puckle, the OC had decided bless his heart, that the Tobruch men deserved a leave, subject to the exigencies of the service. So, after a night in Cairo, “Steve” and I arrived in Alexandria last night and got a room at the Toc H Hostel.

Interesting experience last night. An air raid in a big city. The roar of the siren and then civilians hurrying in an orderly manner to the shelters, through moonlit streets. Tall buildings all around. “No Smoking in the Shelters”. Thud of gunfire. It lasted an hour and gave me some idea of a moonlit night in England now.

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