Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tuesday 10th November 1942

Bullshit is being introduced. Parades, inspections, all men to wear battle dress, all men to salute officers... the usual stuff. It's bloody hot for battle dress today.

Meanwhile mass vehicles are pouring along the road beside which we lie. All going westward, day after day.

Monday 9th November 1942

We are now in a bivouac area near Mersa Matruh. No cosy deep holes here! It was bitterly cold, lying on the deck last night; the wind seemed to drive right through my four blankets. We came here yesterday in response to an SOS but now we don't seem to be needed after all.

Conditions on the road between Fuka and Sidihanaish were quite fantastic. Vehicles were sometimes standing nose-to-tail, two deep, for stretches a mile long. One could not get off the road as heavy rains the previous day had turned parts of the desert into a vast bog. Luckily the Luftwaffe did not come! All along the road was grim evidence of what the RAF had done to Rommel's retreating forces a few days earlier. Bullet riddled trucks, burnt out wrecks...

Heard a bit of news tonight. Our forward forces are past Sidi Barrani and the enemy is still retreating.
French West Africa (Vichy territory) has suddenly been invaded by the Americans at several points. Algiers is already in their hands!

Saturday 7th November 1942

Still browsing around here. It rained yeaterday and at night also. Luckily we had anticipated this, and rigged up a canvas sheet over part of our hole, making it fairly snug.

The enemy around here have all been mopped-up now and the advance has swept on far to the westward. Our part of the campaign is finished for the time being. It is wonderful that we now have enough troops out here to enable units to be relieved and have a rest and re-fit during a campaign. Tanks, guns and infantry just had to keep pushing on until they were worn out, in the old days of the Western Desert Force.

Alas! We were too busy yesterday to join in the looting parties. At last however, in mid-afternoon I had a wash and a shave. We then had an excellent supper, partly from our rations and partly from Jerry sources – fried meat roll, fried potatoes and knackebrot; then pears and custard. Finally Cliff and I opened the thermos, in which was some hot tea, and we sat smoking. I told him a story, “Carl and Anna” and he told me “The Stars Look Down” by Cronin.

Then it was dark and the bombers began to arrive. But we were tired and well fed, and slept soundly until we were called for our own respective turns of sentry-go.

Thursday 5th November 1942

Our W/T netting this morning was amusingly interrupted by the BBC late night news Commentaries. Apparently our new frequency is close to that of the BBC. The news was all about us, too!

“Queen vic uncle, OK off”
“After twelve days of ceaseless battering by the 8th Army, the Axis forces are now in full retreat across Egypt...”
“Queen two, two, over,” “Two OK over” “Two OK off”
“To our boys at the front we say...”
“Four, four, message, over” “Four, pass your message, over”
“This is the British Broadcasting Corporation...”

In between their talks, the BBC staff sent us bursts of stirring, martial music. Patriotic tunes and all that!

At first light, we moved back to the snug dug out... And began to get breakfast ready – and were told to “prepare to move”. We are now sitting on the track ready and waiting. Anyhow, we had a rapid brew of tea. Vera Lynn was singing “I'll pray for you,” as we moved off this morning. After that the BBC faded out.

It was a rotten day for wireless, I had some annoying trouble with my set. There were many sudden halts and rapid moves and the interior of the truck was in chaos. Moved in desert formation all day – west and northward. Prisoners, dust, troops moving up, abandoned German guns, sand dunes and scrub, prisoners, stony desert, troops moving up.

At dusk we crossed the railway, fired a few rounds (registration I think) and settled down for the night. Managed to make a brew and have a hot supper in a deep hole we found. We are a long way beyond Daba now and there is a force of the enemy – either 300 or 5000 of them, I forget which – to our east. That is to say, we are sitting about three miles from them, between them and home.

And now – to bed! Let's hope that we don't move too early in the morning, then I'll be able to sort things out a bit.

Wednesday 4th November 1942

They called me at 5:45a.m. for the W/T netting at 6a.m. I stood up in bed – ie. in my slit trench – and it seemed very much like some peoples' idea of hell. Guns were firing furiously all over the place, but dust obscured the view, so that one could see no flashes. All I saw was an opaque wall of dust, about 50 yards away in each direction. A bleak, dead waste. Empty. But the air was full of noise – a steady thudding of guns. When the mediums fired, there was a light pressure upon my eyes and ears. And overhead was a soft sighing, as our shells flew westwards in a long stream. Surely something like the cold deadness of one's conception of purgatory?
This was a deadly day. Made two advances. The flies got worse as we pushed on into enemy territory.

Information: “The enemy is cracking. He is trying to extricate his main forces, leaving a thin screen in his rear. Dense columns of MT are pouring westwards from Daba. Every available RAF plane is being used to bomb and strafe those areas...”

We found a fine Jerry dug out in the evening and had visions of a snug night – there was a candle, and black out arrangements. But at dusk we had to move. Damn! There was just time for some supper! And eventually we moved only about a mile and then stopped and dispersed.

Slept by our trucks. No digging.

Tuesday 3rd November 1942

We have not moved yet (this is at sunrise). There was a Jerry counter-attack yesterday afternoon; it was beaten off. At dusk the infantry launched a further attack on the Jerry positions, whilst we fired a small barrage (100 rounds a gun).The infantry had only slight opposition this time.

Cliff and I made some tea and put it in our thermos; then late in the evening we sat in the windless interior of “K”, smoking Capstan cigarettes and drinking hot tea. (Vichy cigarettes are good enough for smoking in the open but for indoors, when the full goodness of a tube may be savoured, we use better cigarettes!)

Apple came up, jubilant. “Have you heard this one? It is thought that Jerry is getting out. The armoured cars have gone right through.” Then we noticed the sudden quietness. There'd been no gunfire for hours! It was a disappointment to me when our guns opened up in the early hours (I was on sentry go) and Jerry lobbed some stuff back at us, from the South!

Noon: We have advanced about 2 miles, into a somewhat dirty, fly-infested area. Our slit trench bed holes are nearly done, near the burnt wreckage of a Grant tank. There are many fires on the far horizon. I think Jerry is beginning to crack a little. No more news of the recce. unit that is said to have almost reached the El Daba area at one point but: - “X Brigade reports 1600 prisoners taken last night. Conservative estimate of number of enemy tanks knocked out by the Z Armoured Division yesterday – 45”.

A squad of German prisoners marched past us; very dejected, very tired. The two English guards seemed as tired themselves. At an order, the squad halted. The Germans sank to the ground, the two guards remained standing. One of the signallers was leaning on his truck nearby. “May he have a drink of water?” asked one Jerry (an officer) pointing to a particularly young, exhausted prisoner. The signaller took a mug across. “You want any, mate?” he asked one of the English guards. “No, give it to 'im” said the latter. The young German sat up, gulped down the water, said nothing, lay down again. “Thanks very much,” said his officer, in perfect English.

Had a bath and washed most of my dirty clothes this afternoon (in a gallon of water). I was disturbed once by some pretty close shelling and lay on the lee side of “K” for a while with Ted Gayler, who confided that this sort of thing was “not his life”.

Monday 2nd November 1942

9a.m. The attack went well. We may move forward at any time. A gap was made through the minefields in their second line of defence, and our armoured stuff has been going through that gap since 5a.m. Their counter-battery shooting, in the early hours of this morning was pretty near the mark. A couple of our trucks were damaged and in this Troop the Major was slightly wounded and one signaller was killed in his bed hole, near the exchange.

This was Jock Fleming. Wee Fleming of Glasgow, a rabid Scot, who was with me in “C” Troop and whom I knew to be one of the best. Now he's with the men of Bannockburn and Flodden Field – those battles he was always arguing about. “Wog” Gregory, Jack Tabor and the rest of the crew of “RC” have now been officially reported as “missing.”

12:30p.m. “519 Battery returns. Ammo expended in last 12 hours = 2466, Petrol = 66,... Killed = 1, Fleming J...”

Sunday 1st November 1942

What a quiet night! All was silent whilst I was on sentry-go, except for a little bombing and sporadic gunfire. In between, there were times of utter peace.

Tonight we fire a barrage in support of an attack by the NZ's and others. Have had a pretty hectic time getting up the ammo – 500 rounds per gun for the barrage and 200 per gun in reserve. All is ready now.

The Aussies are still holding their ridge, in the face of attacks by the 90th Light Div. They now have 2000 prisoners.

Tyrer has gone to “X”; so I am now “K” W/T operator, as well as being the battery captains ack.

Saturday 31st October 1942

Nothing much happened today. Two big Stuka raids. Little news of the Aussie attack. Understand a ridge was captured and 500 prisoners taken. The mediums fired all night. They were heavily raided but did not even pause in their barrage. (So I was told! I slept like a log after I came off sentry-go, at 2a.m.)

The Kiwi attack for tonight has been postponed.

Friday 30th October 1942

We've had nice weather lately but today was very dusty again. The Aussies attack tonight in the north; tomorrow night we support an attack here by the New Zealanders. The offensive to “end the war in North Africa” is developing into static artillery duels... Jerry is now putting down fresh minefields... Anyhow we've taken 3000 prisoners, so far.

Two Stuka raids since my last entries, each by 20 or so planes. They were aiming at a medium Regiment next door to us, but we could hear the scream of the bombs. Two killed and two wounded – in our new battery. Total regimental casualties – killed and wounded – are little more than a dozen so far. A man here was wounded at breakfast time this morning. That was only a stray shell. Jerry puts down concentrations of about 20 rounds every now and then (his guns have been more busy today). His salvos crept nearer and nearer this morning until they fell 100 yards in front of “C” Troop guns, and about 200 yards from us.

(Splinters whistled around; I lurked behind the rear wheels of “K”)

Then – to our relief! - Jerry switched his concentrations, and the salvos began to drop about 400 yards to our left. So they haven't quite fixed us yet! Still, our turn may come; we've been busy in this battery, improving our slit-trenches today.

Thursday 29th October 1942

Still the guns thunder, all day long. Around dusk they become quiet for a bit – the blessed relief of that sudden silence! - then, between 9p.m. and 10p.m. every British gun in the sector seems to open up and they fire for several hours. At first the Jerry artillery answered briskly but yesterday afternoon six flights (of 18 bombers each) of Bostons attacked them within an hour. Since then the Jerry guns have been quieter. There have been many raids by Stukas and high-level bombers on our guns, too, but this battery has been lucky – so far.

Yesterday morning, we heard “RC” - the C Troop armoured car calling on it's wireless. Messages that were obviously in a rough sort of code, but which no one here could understand. The Troop Commander himself used the W/T set; his voice very cool and deliberate ... “Charlie orange x-ray. I cannot go to Robert. Do you understand me?”.... “Robert does not exist any more. Robert is no longer in existence. Tell the Big White Chief...” The distant wireless suddenly stopped sending.

“RC” is now 30 hours overdue. The infantry has no news. They lost the whole of a battalion – less 30 men who “did not cross the ridge,” during Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Still no news of the crew of “RC”. They may even now turn up, but we've written off the armoured car. In that car were, I presume, the usual people – ie. Jack Tabor and Wog Gregory...

Wednesday 28th October 1942

Midday, and hot but – for once – not very dusty. We are well forward – beyond the Jerry minefield in fact – and things are quite lively. The artillery is giving 'em hell, and their guns are doing their best to send hell back. A lot of stuff fell around here last night; first it was 88mm and later there was a little heavier type – 149mm perhaps. It may be that the main clash will occur today. A lot of our armour has moved up and there are reported to be about a 100 Jerry tanks (possibly part of the 15th and 21st Panzar divs.) in the district. Plenty of aerial activity yesterday, but less this forenoon. There are a good many burning vehicles about a mile away. Wonder what Jerry's lines look like?

There was a bit of a panic in the command post when I was there just now, phoning through the ammo return for last night (788 rounds HE and 7 of smoke expended). A regimental target was being ordered and a wireless set had suddenly gone wrong. Bill Bax alone seemed unperturbed. He was rubbing a damp flannel over his face and paused to smile whimsically. Coming near to me, so that he needn't shout, he said, “Hullo Steve. We do see life, don't we?”

Monday 26th October 1942

We dispersed in bivouac. A terrific gun barrage was being fired around us. There was an air raid on, and parachute flares coming down. An aeroplane fled across the area, sowing a couple of acres of death with small bombs. There was one casualty – in “D” Troop.

I was i/c the BHQ Guard tonight. We found a deserted bed-hole. This area seemed unpopulated; it was not. Queer hawks emerged from deep dug outs, tin-hatted. “What's on?” asked one, crawling out at my feet as I patrolled. “Who are you?” I demanded. “RASC,” said the earthy denizen, “Wot's all this banging?” He pointed to the gun flashes all around us. “Is it bombing?” he asked. “How long have you been out here, mate?” I queried sarcastically, and patrolled wearily on, not waiting for an answer.

I found many mysterious holes in the ground, mostly peopled by men who didn't know there was a war on. Got to sleep, 2:30a.m. Barrage still in full swing. There had been a dozen raids since our arrival, by single Stukas. Our marvellous AA guns had not yet arrived, so Jerry had fun.

3p.m. Up at 5:45a.m. Until now it has been a quiet day. We are a mile from the sea. Stukas have appeared several times, to be greeted joyously by mass AA gunnery. It is, as usual, dusty. At breakfast time, to my surprise, machine-gun bullets began to whistle down at my feet. A moment later three planes flew in, very low, from seawards; clatter of infantry rifles and rattle of fighter machine guns! Two planes force-landed about a mile away; the third one circled quietly, then flew away. This third plane was definitely English, but no one knows what the others were. We remain puzzled.

I went down to El Alamein for a load of water this morning. On the way I saw a hundred or so men digging graves. For such as we...

9p.m. Our move back into action has been postponed 'til tomorrow. So this evening, suddenly become leisured folk, we moved into the burrows of the earthy RASC people who had gone elsewhere. Cliff and I have an 8 foot by 5 foot dug out, about 4 feet deep, entered by a sort of mine shaft. It is snug and clean; the roof is of timber beams, corrugated iron and sand. We have a stub of candle. We've just enjoyed a mug of hot tea each from the “K” thermos flask – Cliff, “Blue”, Ted Gayler (visitor) and I.

And now to sleep. Maalesh the bombs!

Sunday 25th October 1942

Yesterday was pretty rotten, for the most part. There was a zift wind and it was very dusty. We were bored. Cliff and Blue quarrelled the previous night – just before a steady drumming vibration told us the barrage had started – and yesterday Blue was sort of worried and Cliff was sulky.

We have not passed through the Jerry minefield yet, although we are in the battle area and the guns are firing steadily. Things did mot go quite according to plan, though I think the situation is developing alright at the present. There was a long night march in the early hours of Saturday and then we waited about, 'til dusk. Very little to eat – no time for cooking. In the afternoon I made a 12 mile trip in search of petrol (it was a foul, bumpy, dusty route) and found there was none available. We saw no Stukas during daylight, only mass Boston bombers passing to and fro every half hour or so.

At dusk they put us in a deadly place by the English mine-gaps. A great crowd of vehicles, men and guns in a square mile of dusty ground. It was nice not to have to join in the frenzy of line-laying, for once! We all dug bed-holes as the full moon rose. Thank God! It was a cloudy night. I didn't even object to the drizzle of rain that fell. The barrage opened up, all around us; but we heard nothing of it after the first half hour. We slept. We didn't even know anything about the bombing there had been, until this morning.

Now it is mid-forenoon; we're just about to move. Had a good, hot breakfast and a shave! I also managed to obtain and deliver two lorry-loads of ammo. Another unit was using the same W/T frequency as ourselves. Their messages kept butting-in on ours. “Beer Robert London,” came a faint voice, “It is very hot here. I say again, very hot. These batteries are very weak, the truck with the spare batteries has been knocked out... Hullo, Beer Robert London...”

We moved forward two miles. Beastly dusty. There was no shelling within 1000 yards of us. Then a single shell crashed down near me. Two men died quietly and instantly. Presently a truck took the bodies away.

Stray Stukas – no more than three at a time – came over and were driven off with a hail of AA fire. We'd never known such effective ack-ack defences before, in the field.

Evening: “Enemy withdrawing. Move N in support of a conspicuous success by the North Armd. Division.” We pulled out of the battle at 10p.m. Visions of an idyllic, quiet bivouac by the sea. Arrived here about 12:30a.m. and it was:-

Friday 23rd October 1942

Well, tonight is THE night – for phase one, anyhow. The barrage commences at 10p.m. tonight, in the sector to which we are going, and we have to be ready to move by that time. The Colonel gave a short address this morning - different from what the bullshitting Col. Todhunter might have said and more human than we should have received from the harsh, military Col. Matthews (now CRA). He said much of what the OC had already said, emphasising the grimness of the next few days. Strangely, he gave us a text to keep in mind: “Be thou of good courage... for the Lord thy God is with thee.” And he ended by saying, “And so – Good luck to you all!” How different to the methods of the Base Depot RA!

There was a good deal of gunfire last night – far away to the north.
It is 4p.m. We'll soon have to start getting the truck ready. God knows there's plenty to be loaded! Cliff Hanley, “Blue” Tyrer and I have beguiled the hours – when not busy – by discussing the theory of music; modern poetry, Byron – Shelley – Tennyson poetry; and the history of dance music.

I have managed to obtain 4 ozs of issue tobacco (Broad Cut) It is ghastly, but smokable.

Thursday 22nd October 1942

Dusk: I am sitting in the wind-shielded cab of “K” truck, enjoying a Gold Flake cigarette. (How different to the issue, “V for Victory” cigarettes, which we call “Vichy”!) Things are very pleasant whilst we wait here. A final NAAFI issue came today and we each had 200 Players Navy Cut, death tubes. I had over a hundred fags before, half of which were the terrible Vichy type and the rest Gold Flake and Capstan. Tobacco is scarce though. They don't seem to get any up here. Today Stan Gregory (“Woggery”) gave me about 2 ozs. of dry, assorted foul tobacco which he had found. It is in a fine powdered form; I eke it out with the cigarette butts of the crew of “K”. I also have an unopened 4 ozs. tin of “Afrikander” in my pack – but I'm keeping that as battle ration.

Dusk has become night. The moon should be at the full tomorrow. A cool evening wind has arisen and I'm glad to be in the warmth of “K” right now. The dusty track by which we are parked is getting busy as the darkness gathers. A stream of lorries is passing now; all going frontwards. As usual!

Wednesday 21st October 1942

We are now at an assembly point in the echelon area of the central sector. There is little to do at present. We have been here 20 hours now and have not seen one single enemy bomber or fighter. There is, as one might have expected, a big push pending (or as the BC calls it “a party”). The intention, he told us optimistically, is not to drive the enemy out of Egypt; or to take Tobruch. The intention is to end the war in North Africa! The first five, or seven days of our job will be “pretty bloody”, he told us. We don't start until the second phase of the battle. The first phase will be a colossal artillery barrage and a four div. infantry attack somewhere else – not here. So when we hear the barrage start, we'll know our time is short. No-one knows when phase one will occur. The whole scheme seems to have been carefully planned so, as the Major says, we must do our damnedest and all should be well. Meanwhile, it looks as though we shall have a pretty steady time until the “do” starts.

I was awakened this morning by Cliff Hanley, who had been on guard. “Awake!” he cried, - “For Morning in the bowl of Night, has flung the Stones which puts the Stars to flight!” I opened one eye. All was still dark; there were no streaks of red in the eastern sky. “It ruddy well hasn't,” I mumbled, referring to Morning, presumably, and huddled into my four blankets again.

It is cold in the early mornings and late at night, but otherwise the weather is just fine.

Tuesday 20th October 1942

We moved here, considerably in advance of our old position, on the 18th. This afternoon we moved on. The Division moves on. Into action, no doubt. The weather has come pleasantly mild again and those two ghastly days are but an evil memory. The moon is waxing towards the full.

Evening 1942

“... Yet, if you enter the woods...
... You will hear the beat of a horse's feet
And a swish of a skirt in the dew
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods...
But there is no road through the woods.”

Saturday 17th October 1942

8:30p.m. inside K truck. A bitter cold wind has been blowing, is still blowing. The draught even penetrates into here. Nevertheless, after two days in the open, it is wonderful to sit in a sheltered space, able to enjoy a cigarette. Have just heard that reveille is at 5:45 tomorrow. Ready to move by 9a.m. Does this mean we are going further west, towards where we hear the grumbling of the guns on windless nights? Probably. It may even be “the push.”

The last two days have been hellish. K went to Cairo yesterday morning, leaving me here i/c the returns and vehicle documents etc. There was a high, cold wind which developed into a pukka dust storm about 3p.m. We (too many of us) cowered in the fragile exchange tent in the evening. It seemed likely to carry away at any moment, dust showered in on us, and icy blasts of wind entered via various holes. Then it rained furiously. And the rain dripped in. Half an hours' peace and the wind rose again, more savage than ever. There was no dust now for the rain had soaked the whole desert.

I slept edged between M1 and the tent, fully clothed less boots, with my greatcoat over my head. It rained in the night but I didn't know; being in the lee of the truck, the wind-driven rain did not penetrate my blankets. The cold awoke me at 5 o'clock or so. It was hell to get out of bed and stand-up, at reveille (6a.m.).

Regimental drill order. God! It was cold in the front of M1! We went about 20 miles into the desert. We were bogged down a dozen times and had to be winched out by a gun-tower each time. Miserable hours. As the sand dried, it became dusty again. Always it was cold and terribly windy. How I hate the wind in these bleak open spaces, where there is no protection! That's why it is so heavenly to be sitting in K at this moment, fairly un-cold, with the electric light giving a semblance of snugness.

Tyrer brought me a bar of chocolate from Cairo. This was almost ambrosia to me...
I ought to clean my teeth before I huddle into my blankets. But it is too cold!

Thursday 15th October 1942

I have been removed from M1, and put on K – still in the HQ Troop of 519 Battery. It seems I am sort of “spare file” at the moment – I might even have been posted elsewhere, but in view of my long and good service (I quote!) they have found this job for me. It should be pleasant – while it lasts, for I cynically never expect good jobs to last very long – as it will be varied sort of work. Also, K has a “chummy” small crew, consisting of one officer, one driver and two signallers.

My job is not so much wireless operating (the real operator seems quite competent!) as being a sort of ack. to the Battery Captain. There are various administrative duties in this direction, and trotting about from truck to truck, compiling masses of figures for Daily Returns etc. Furthermore, of all officers, this battery Captain happens to be Appleby Adams. So it shouldn't be too bad here – while it lasts.
K is an all steel Dodge truck, the interior of which can be blacked out at night...

Wednesday 14th October 1942

Reveille 6a.m., PT Parade 6:45a.m. Breakfast (troop cookhouse) 7:30a.m.

Kits roughly stacked, positions tidied up, wash, shave and Troop Parade (open order march; inspection!) at 8:45a.m. A bit different to the 519 I once knew!

Met Bill Bax this morning; he's just come back from leave. The battery is now out on a drill order, but I've been left peacefully on the exchange; which gives me a chance to write this.

Tuesday 13th October 1942

A lorry from the Regiment came to collect us this morning, and we were deposited at RHQ (RSM Carlo!) early in the afternoon, after a long and rough journey. The Regiment is not in action, so even here there is a little bullshit. The routine, I should imagine is approximate to that which was in force in the Bagush Box in 1940.

I was posted to 519 Battery, and (pro tem) attached to BHQ. They haven't got a job for me, at the moment. There were many new faces, but also quite a few familiar ones.
Bob Andrews (pay clerk), Ken White (NCO Sigs), Don Pounds )BQMS), Wally Parkin (his assistant), Ted Gayler (exchange NCO), and two of my old “C” Troop signallers, Gus Hallows and Jock Fleming. There were quite a few others I knew, too, such as the signaller who joined us at Mena in April, and Jack Weatherall and Jimmie James.

Tonight, once again I slept under the stars, on a wide miredam – there are no dug outs here, it's well behind the lines – and slept damn well, from 9:30p.m. to 5:45a.m. next morning.

Monday 12th October 1942

Amirya, 7:30 p.m. Hell of a time last night, for when I did eventually report to battery office, the bloody wastes in there didn't seem to know there was a draft detailed. So I had to roam about restlessly for about two hours, whilst they sorted themselves out. Eventually they located the only decent and efficient sergeant of the Base, who gave me full details of what was happening and where I was to sleep. “That business of this morning,” he said, staccato, with a sweeping gesture of the hands, “All washed out.” “No stain on my character?” I laughed. “Ah! I wouldn't say that!”

I felt beastly lonely, somehow. There was no one whom I knew really well on the draft. Several times during the evening I went into the old tent. It was dark and deserted. I had missed Dewhurst somewhere. On my last visit however, he was there, dozing. He woke up as I was leaving and came out for a few last words. “Where've you been Steve? I was waiting in the Beacon... Maybe we'll meet again... If I can, I'll come to the 104th later...”
“Write, Bob. Let me know if your charge gets quashed, too.” “Sure.”
“Don't suppose we shall meet again, actually.” “If you come through the war OK, Steve, come down to Worthing. You've got the address...”

These war time friendships and their foul, abrupt endings!

Well, I got to bed about 10:30 last night, and was up again at 4 o'clock this morning. A good breakfast. Eleven of us in the draft. Left the Base Depot at 4:45a.m. It was like leaving a grim concentration camp. The barbed wire, the sentries, the barrier and finally the glaring arc light above the gate, seen as our lorry sped down the dark road, made it resemble a prison even more. Then what were we? Men discharged to freedom, or condemned men being taken out for a dawn execution? What you will!

The train journey to this forward reinforcements camp seemed very quick. I didn't read a detective thriller this time but an equally suitable naval story, “Submarine Flotilla.” And now, here I am in the YMCA, in the same reading room as I sat in precisely 11 months ago, on the way back to Tobruch. I expect we shall be drafted on to the Regiment early in the morning. The camp is just the same as it was eleven months ago. A place of transit indeed! A great sprawling camp of hundreds of men, few of whom remain as long as 48 hours before moving on.

Amirya! TS Eliot's “Hollow Men” has some applicable lines:

“... In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river...”

Sunday 11th October 1942

We are now being buggered about. Yesterday morning, on roll call, all men of 104th RHA – plus Dewhurst – were fallen out. “Get your kit packed and parade here, ready to move, in two hours time. Your unit is sending a lorry to fetch you.” We waited a long while. My spirits sank when, after an hour or so, Bob was summoned into the office and told he would not be on the draft. (“You are not in the 104th, are you?” they said to him. “No” admitted Bob. “Alright, then, you'll be put on draft next Tuesday – to another Regiment”).

Bob, browned off, says he will not be keen to reach the blue after this. Now, I wish I'd applied for a Base job, as instructor at the Training Wing. People with lower marks than I have applied and been accepted. So I felt quite fed up. My spirits rose (slightly) when I was interviewed by the BSM and received my certificate from the Training Wing. “First class qualification. Reliable and capable. Recommended for Battery NCO i/c Signals.” The chit which goes to my Unit said much the same and also: “An excellent wireless instructor”. This struck me as funny, as WT is my weakest subject. Those practice lectures, with their lengthy introductions, must have made a good, though quite incorrect impression!

So we continued to wait. At 11:15a.m. - after 2 ¾ hours – we were told a mistake had been made, and the draft was “off.” We'd have to go up with the next ordinary WD draft, early next week... Bob and I attended no more parades, this day.

At 5:330p.m. we got evening passes and went out. Too late for the first house so we went to the last house of the flicks. With a crowd of other people, we waited an interminable time at the tramway terminus. Some breakdown in the system. Eventually reached camp at about 1:30a.m. instead of 12:45a.m.

Today I feel very sleepy. Sunday is an ordinary working day here but I don't think I'll go on any parades. I went on roll call, but walked off, serenely, unchallenged, when they began detailing NCO's for fatigues.

I have just heard that Dewhurst and I are both “on a charge” and are to see the OC at 12:30p.m. Our crime is not for missing parades but for being late home last night. This is the first time I have been “on a charge,” so it should be an interesting experience.

Later: Six of us went before the “A” Battery BSM. Whilst waiting we were watching a wretched gunner being drilled by a truculent and large Base Sergeant. Presumably the gunner had made some error in saluting, because the drill consisted only of “eyes right” and “eyes left,” on the march – with occasional “about turns” of course, and “to your right (or left) – salute!” The sergeant shouted his orders from the shade of some buildings whilst the victim marched to and fro in the full blaze of the midday sun. Sometimes the sergeant cunningly marched the man towards the shade and then ordered “about turn” when the sweating soldier was a bare pace away from the dark, cool patch. as the gunner grew more hot and tired, the sergeant became more gibing and critical. “There's no hurry! Eyes – right! I've got nothing else to do. We can stay here all day, if you like! Eyes – front! About – turn!”

He was ingeniously provoking too. For instance a squad of dirty Arabs were squatting on the sand, watching the spectacle. So several times, the gunner was made to march close to them and then to salute towards them. However, we had to leave this pretty scene and go into the office to see God, in this case the BSM. A second lieutenant stood beside him and there were two sergeants and a bombardier hovering nearby.
My explanations were not accepted.

“I don't doubt your story,” said the BSM, “But the fact remains you should have been back here by 12:45 and you were not.”
“Owing to circumstances beyond my control, sir.”
“That's not enough!” snapped the BSM, “You'll see the Battery Commander at 9:30 tomorrow morning.” (Prisoner and escort 'shun! Prisoner – cap off!)

I lost my temper; my hands began to tremble.
“I joined the Territorials in 1935. And before the war or during the three years of war, I've never been charged!” (They were all silent, eyes averted, perhaps expecting a “sob story”) But alas! I went on:- “It seems that you people down here are too keen to make criminals out of well behaved NCOs”.

(“Criminals?” whispered the still small voice of Reason. “You are, actually, a criminal, mate. What about that WD prperty you sold to the Wogs? Good enough for a year in gaol! You've not been well behaved at all, whilst down here!)

The BSM looked up sharply. “I take exception to that remark, bombardier! And I don't like the word “criminals”.”
“Well there it is, sir.”
“I'm very surprised, especially at you, an NCO who's just come from the training wing, with such a good report.”
“I have nothing against the training wing...”
“I'm not interested in that, nor do I want to hear what you are inferring...”

More words were bandied, hotly. It's a wonder they didn't pin another charge – insolence perhaps – onto me. When I came out, I found, as expected, that Dewhurst was “for the OC” as well. For once, though, he'd kept his temper, which is generally much quicker than mine.

Later still: It looks as though I shall escape the “prisoner – cap off!” business tomorrow as, if there is no further postponement of the latest draft, I should be far from this “last of meeting places” by 9:30 a.m. I didn't condescend to go to the 2 o'clock parade this afternoon, but retired to the sanctity of the Beacon. The 104th draft was again fallen out. No one seemed perturbed at my absence, but a message was sent to me that I was again on draft and was to sleep in the guard-room – ready by 4:30a.m tomorrow.

Thursday 8th October 1942

We are still at the Base! For two days we have waited, without impatience, doing nothing, and attending no parades except for roll call. They were expecting a 104th lorry to come and collect us all; but today they have been informed that the Regiment has now returned to the Western Desert and we must all wait for an ordinary WD draft. That's alright; but meanwhile our names have all been entered on a Troop roll... This was not so before. Now, we must attend all parades – there's about six a day – and perform footling duties (like collecting stones into heaps) or else be reported absent.

Of course, with skill, it may still be possible to do a good deal of dodging...
If I'd gone straight back to the blue after that last evening in Cairo, I'd have gone enthusiastically. After being decently treated for awhile, and full of the keen-ness which is natural after an interesting and refreshing Course, it is depressing to have all enthusiasm beaten out of you, insidiously, in the way they have at the Base. It is a college for discontent and mutinous feelings. One might imagine that this base Depot was run by a squad of fifth columnists, bent on destroying our morale.

Tonight, a zift, dusty wind is blowing. Bob and I have come to the Beacon. Last night also, we came here – and “escaped” most excellently, for we talked in turn for two hours of long-ago romances and quite forgot the draft and the Base and the war!

Tuesday 6th October 1942

7:45p.m. at the “Beacon” - well lighted, static and secure. An hour ago, I sat here peacefully, writing a letter, having had tea here, and read a few chapters of “Q”.

Then Bob came in, urgently. “Steve,” he said, “I've just heard there's been a muster parade – drafts going out. There was a list for the 104th and your name was called.” “And yours?” I asked, hastily re-reading the letter I'd just finished. “No. Come on, let's go to the office.” “OK” We went. Nothing was said about being absent from parade. My name was marked with a tick. Bob's name was not on the list! At his request it was put on. (The draft goes, not tonight, but tomorrow morning.)

“Fancy you volunteering!” I said, “Damned if I would!” “Ah!” said Bob, “I'm relying on you to give me some tips about this ruddy desert!” I only hope old Bob and I don't get put into different batteries! Well, there's nothing to be done tonight so I'm back at the Beacon, to enjoy the sense of detachment it gives me, for the last time.

Monday 5th October 1942

During last evening, Bob and I descended into petty crime and our financial situation improved accordingly. We now have a fair supply of soap, matches, razor blades, cigarettes and tobacco. I also have a fresh bottle of ink. We went on parade for pay this forenoon and drew £7 between us – and we have not yet been drafted! Or suffered from any Base bullshit!

It happened like this. We went out last night, with only a few piastres in our pockets, after abortive attempts to borrow money. When we reached Cairo we had two coffees at the usual place – 3 piastres – and went on a no. 13 tram towards the Citadel, through the native quarter. Bob had a brand new pair of boots in his kit bag. “Can't we sell these?” he said hopefully. “”Yimkin”, I said.

However, Bob addressed an Indian soldier who hung precariously beside me on the step of the tram, whilst we jolted through stinking streets. “You want buy boots, Johhnie? Teaki!” The Indian showed many teeth. “Me get plenty boots from Army! Inter mascine?” “Awa, mascine,” I said gloomily. The Indian pondered. Presently he said, “You go Citadel? Me also. Maybe I find you Egyptian, buy boots.”

So when we got near the Citadel we alighted. The Indian at once approached a dirty looking Arab, who looked as though he hadn't got ten millienes for a piastre, and said something to him. The decrepit Arab looked interested, began to follow us. Our Indian friend led us to a patch of bare ground – right beside the main road(!) - where we squatted down, native fashion.

The boots were cautiously produced and examined. “Now we have conference,” said Johnny. “Kam?” asked the Arab, impassively. The ensuing discussion began to attract too much attention, so we decided to do nothing until nightfall. The four of us strolled down the road and began to examine the exterior of a mosque. It was by no means a “perfect crime;” we must have looked a suspicious crowd – an Indian, a disreputable Arab, and two English soldiers carrying kit bag and pack respectively. However, we were desperate, and it was our first attempt at this sort of thing.
Eventually we strolled far into the native quarter and up a narrow lane, where a second – and more rascally looking – Arab became interested.

We were too conspicuous however. Heads appeared at windows, urchins hovered around us. A third Arab now joined us, wearing atrocious English clothes and with vile smelling breath. He took command, with the second rascal, over-bearing our original, more timid client.

“Dangerous here,” he said excitedly, “Someone here tell police!” “You take us in house,” I said. “All right, Come.” We reached a dingy doorway. The third and first Wogs went in with Bob. They tried to keep me outside but a woman began shrieking abuse within and I heard Bob shout, “Where are you, Steve?” so I pushed in, past several protesting Arabs.

Hell of a din inside. The occupants of the house seemed very disturbed at our entrance. All was dark. we were led along a passage, up a ram-shackled stair and into a dark room. There was no furniture, when we struck matches, so we squatted on he stone floor. Presently the Wog returned with an oil lamp. “Shuft!” he said, anxiously, “Igri!” The noise of angry voices all over the house, continued. The timid Arab looked wistful. We showed the third Wog the boots, also Bob's gym vest and gym shorts, and my spare pair of khaki shorts and the pyjamas I scrounged from hospital. He took a look at it all, fingered the boots. “Alright! I give you money!”
The protesting cries increased. “It dangerous here,” said the Wog, “Police! Come!”

We packed our wares up, went down into he street and away along some narrow alley-ways. The Indian and the first Arab disappeared. We were sorry to lose the Indian, as he deserved some commission. It was quite dark now, but a crowd of boys still followed us. So, coming to a main road, we leapt on a tram – the second and third Arabs and Bob and I. The conductor came along for tickets. “Ana mascine!”. I said. “Gibbit cigarette” said the conductor. I did, and there was no more talk of fares.

Eventually we reached an empty road in the vicinity of some gardens and, undisturbed now, made our final bargaining. They gave us 150 PTS, for the boots and clothes. We could have got more, probably, but we were in a hurry, having wasted so much time. (Besides, ex-convicts have often told me, you never get more than one third of the value of your stolen goods from the “fence”!) We noticed that the third Wog hid the gym vest hastily in his clothes before the second Wog saw it – so that it wouldn't come into the sharing of their spoils later. Thief robs thief!

Before we came away, the third Wog told us his name. “Any time you want sell things, come to my house,” he said. We agreed – but his name was terribly hard for an Englishman to remember!

So, eventually, tired but light of heart we reached the Citadel and put the remainder of our kit – ie my photographs and books – in the regimental store. Most of the money was Bob's but he lent me 50 pts, kept 50 pts. for himself and spent the remaining 50 pts on the evening's entertainment. We came back from the Citadel by taxi, had supper, and bought mass tobacco and cigarettes. Then we went to the last house at the Metropole and saw a merry, clever film called “Appointment for Love”
“Does your conscience trouble you?” asked Bob. “Does it hell!' I said, “I've seldom had a more enjoyable evening! What about you?” “Same,” said Bob happily, “ill-gotten gains!”

We arrived back at camp 25 minutes over time, but were checked in OK. Reveille was at 5:45 this morning, only four hours after we got to bed. We went on roll call. Our names were not on the troop roll so we said nothing. We were detailed for fatigues but said we were on draft. “Alright then,” said the NCO “You'd better be, that's all.” “Oh, but we are on draft, really!” we said sincerely.

However, a long draft list was now being called out but our names were not mentioned. So we again said nothing. We missed the other three ordinary parades today. Just went to pay parade. Our names were called out there, alright!

So we have had a very pleasant time. This afternoon we took the long walk to the dear old “Beacon” hut. Bob wrote letters and I read a 17th century cloak and sword romance by “Q” (“The Splendid Spur”) until I fell asleep in a pleasant arm-chair. Reading “Q” again, reminded me of the time, many summers ago, when I sat reading his “Nicky Nan, Reservist,” in a field near Rothley, Leicestershire, and heard faint music coming from across the meadows. Was it, “Smile the while...til we meet again,” or perhaps “The Missouri Waltz”? Something like that.

We had tea here. I have spent the evening on this diary, whilst Bob, beside me, has been reading “Gone with the Wind”. We'll have a cup of tea presently, and then, I think, go early to bed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sunday 4th October 1942

Bob and I are in “A” Battery – and on draft to the 104th RHA. Quick work! They awoke us this morning and told us to report to the new drafting battery “E”. After some hours of confusion it was found I had not just come from England, but had previously served with the RHA and so was detailed to report to “A” Battery. Bob accordingly said, he also was in the RHA and was similarly detailed.

When we arrived at “A” Battery we acted “dumb” and nothing seemed to happen until the BSM said “What Regiment were you with, before you came here?” “104th RHA" I said. “104th RHA”, lied Bob. “Ah! said the BSM, “Right! You two will return to your units tomorrow. Get your names taken in the office. That's all!” “May we go out this afternoon, sir?” I said hastily, “We want to get some essential kit from our regimental store, at the Citadel...” “Right!” said the BSM, “Give these men two passes, bombardier. That's all!”

So here we are, having washed our clothes – at 3p.m., sorting out our surplus kit. We want to get rid of stuff, not draw more! The only snag is – we're going out with about 12 piastres between us. Let's hope we don't actually leave until after pay parade tomorrow, as we at present lack matches, cigarettes, tobacco, soap, razor blades. Also, I've got very little ink.

I'm glad to be going quickly, thus missing the horrors of Base bullshit, but it seems a bit rough on Bob, who could have stayed in “E” Battery, perhaps for a couple of weeks, before being drafted somewhere. However, he doesn't seem to mind.

Saturday 3rd October 1942

Exam results. I obtained 436 marks out of a possible 500. Position in the class – 6th, grade Q1 (Q2 was all I hoped for when we began). So I am now an Ack 1 and am entitled to wear the coveted flags above my stripes.

There were two of the rare D's, eight or nine Q1's, about ten Q2's and four fails. Unfortunately one of these last was Bob Dewhurst. Nobody expected him to fail.

We went out this afternoon, I with a genuine pass, Bob with a forged one. We had very little money between us, though.

Friday 2nd October 1942

In the Beacon Hut (for the last time?) at 8:30p.m. Even though I finished “Gone with the Wind” some days ago, I still get vicarious pleasure from it, because Bob Dewhurst is now immersed in Scarlett O'Hara's problems and discusses the book with me chapter by chapter,as he progresses.

Some more exam results today. I must have passed! It might even be a Q1 as opposed
to a Q2 (the lowest form of pass), which was the highest I had hoped for. Anyhow, I scraped a pass on what I knew was my weakest paper. I got 30 marks (60%) for wireless theory and 42 (84%) for electricity. I knew I should pass on the latter, but the wireless result was a pleasant surprise.

Thursday 1st October 1942

I was on duty, but, browned-off, I persuaded someone else to do it for me whilst I left the camp, armed with a bogus pass. Bob had a genuine pass.

It is sad that this course is nearly over. What a respite it has been, from dis-order! Now the grim “bluey” looms ahead, preceded by a short spell at a Base Depot battery – even more deadly. So we savoured the semi-civilised pleasures of Cairo with this thought in our minds – the end is in sight.

(“One after one, like tasting a rich food...”)

In the Brittannia Cafe we saw, seated at a table together:- Jack Tabor, George Hignall (now BSM) Sid Sorrell, Jack Bateman, Herbert Golding and Sgt. Major Counell.
What a clique! “Mass wastes!” I greeted them. How I should have shrunk from meeting them at all, if I had been a permanent Base wallah!


Wednesday 30th September 1942

A pretty bloody drill order today, in the desert near Cairo. It was the third day of a torrid khamsin. Weary flies dropped continually onto my face, crawling hopefully on my lips and into my eyes, in search of water or moisture. It was not enough to brush them away; sometimes they did not move even when touched and then you could pick them up, struggling listlessly. Flies have rarely been so numerous or maddening as this.

I got 99.5% for lamp reading (6wpm) and 8/10 for buzzer sending (10wpm)

Tonight we had the dread buzzer reading exam – running hand at 12 wpm. I got 99.5% ie there was only one mistake in 200 letters...

Dewhurst, from whom I copied most of the message, got only 99%. So, I, the cribber got one more mark than the cribbee... how the wicked prosper!

Tuesday 29th September 1942

This afternoon I sat, dourly silent in my tent, and read “Gone with the Wind.” My new-draft companions sprawled around me, looking untidy, dirty and unhealthy, like all new English troops do. However, I ignored them and finished my book at last. What a colossal work! “Gone with the Wind”!

I pondered idly then, upon the person who gave the book to me, last January – Jack Chenery; and upon the place where I'd first glanced at it's multitudinous pages – Jerusalem. I sought out Bob Dewhurst, sitting gloomily amid his new draft, and told him about 1) Scarlet O'Hara, Rhett Butler and Melanie and 2) the pleasantness of that leave in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley.

At that point I looked up and saw jack Chenery himself nearby, wandering among the Training Wing tents! Yes, he was looking for me. It was unfortunately, a case of hail and farewell, for, although he only arrived at the Base yesterday from hospital (a touch of the usual stomach trouble), he had already been put on a draft for the 104th.

We chatted uneasily for a few minutes. “ “The dazed last minutes click” ” I said sorrowfully. “Yes,” said Jack, “I still carry old Brooke around with me, you know!”

Monday 28th September 1942

A not-very lucky day.

First, we had a practice buzzer reading. I am still unable to read 12wpm. Then we held a post-mortem on the recent procedure exam. I got 40 marks (80%). Harry Burt got 43, Burrows 38 and “Brum Bronsdon 30. Bob Dewhurst however only got 20. Baker (an unpleasant type) who came into the tent recently in place of Taffy Simmons (who went to hospital) also failed – 13 marks. That's natural, but no one expected Bob to fail on procedure.

Just before lunch there was another blow. Dewhurst and I were detailed to leave the NCO's tent and take charge of some recalcitrant new draft gunners in two separate tents. We accordingly moved (there were already ten men in my tent) and the old happy home has been abruptly broken up. Le mauvais Baker, being senior, has been put in charge of Bromsdon, Burt and Burrows!

Saturday 26th September 1942

Evening: I'm going to bed early tonight. But first I'll read my letter again – though that'll do no good. She has even quoted Brooke to me. “... Is this, friend, the end of all that we could do?...”

“Desertion”! Ah, Brooke, like a great work of art, can be quoted in many ways. “Shall we linger on, content in the lean twilight...” Or, “All's over that is ours and life burns on...” But Brooke is a strange poet to quote – he can be brutal:

“I've loved you faithfully and well
Three years or a bit less
It wasn't a success.”

She writes:-

“Long, long ago I gave up thoughts of marriage – we were not of the type that could have our love made earthly... My dear, do not reproach yourself, there is nothing either of us can do to tread the path we must tread alone, but never lonely, for the other will always be there within call and helping spiritually... I am always close to you... altho' we may not meet for years. Love such as ours... holds us together for all time... the lamp of love is still a steady flame... No, again I say it must not be “good-bye” but “au'voir,” which is less bleak, for we have trust, love and understanding... I'll always love you to the end and beyond for all time...”

Some of this sounds like the writings of a crazy person. Yes! And I'm liable to go crazy too! These letters coming to me at intervals, sometimes in the desert, sometimes at the Base, sometimes in training areas, make my head ache at the back. God knows it's difficult enough to keep serene and confident and happy in this endless war so far from the England that I may never see again.

Still, I have sometimes achieved some measure of faith and serenity. Yet each time I do, one of these letters comes, to destroy all faith, all hope, every straw, all security.

How different is my four years love of April! Cool fire!

“Here's peace for you, and surety; here the one Wisdom – the truth!...”

Peace, surety, wisdom and truth. Age and Certainty too, and Quiet kind...

The letters of April, so full of faith and confidence give all their serenity to me, when I read them. And then there are imperishable things again.

April write like this:-

“We will meet again and not in any dream land of fantasy either but in reality, you and I...” “I'd like to kiss you and kiss those silly ideas out of your head” “The beginning is yet to be...” “Tell me everything, from toothache to flies and dust, and tiredness, to fright and terror and desert to leave.”

Windsfall 1942

“... I stand, for this memorials' sake, alone
In the snivelling hours with dead, humped Ann
Whose hooded fountain heart once fell in puddles
Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun...”

Friday 25th September 1942

Well, I bullshit my way through the No.11 set exam and the oral exam. Most of yesterday forenoon was devoted to the procedure exam. Got through that alright – about 60% I should think. Made some silly and unnecessary mistakes though, as I found later, when I consulted my notes.

That wireless theory was a stinker of a paper though. Worst we have had. Next week is the last of the course. There are no more tests except the morse reading and sending. Don't see how I can manage the reading. (12wpm running hand)

At last (yesterday) I had a free afternoon! Bob was on duty, so I went out alone. I had lots to do, so worked to a strict schedule. As soon as I left camp, I had my boots cleaned. Had iced coffee at the naval place when I reached town. Then I booked a seat for the cinema and did some shopping (stockings and cosmetics for England).

Next I browsed peacefully in bookshops and incidentally bought some Christmas cards. Then I called at “Music for All”, had no music but a bath, haircut and some tea and cakes. And by that time it was 6:30p.m. and I hurried off to the cinema. Not a bad supper afterwards at Rousso's, although I did not feel very hungry. The meal was a pleasant change from Army food, which is hardly ambrosia. Altogether, it was quite a pleasant outing, and I got a lot of things done which had been outstanding for some time.

This night I was on guard – i/c an anti-parachutist guard. Just as I was going to guard mounting, Dewhurst brought me a letter from Battery Office. I saw the Southend on sea postmark and the familiar handwriting; my heart sank. If she knew the hell it plunged me into, would she still keep writing? Does she not understand? Does she think I'm happy here? Oh, Lois, why do you wreck a happy memory so desperately? Why could you not have finished as you seemed to do, so splendidly, far back in 1940? “... On my way into the blue...” Yes, that was splendid, this miserable dragging on is only sordid.

Not much sleep on guard – only from 2a.m. to 5a.m. It did not matter,as I didn't feel very sleepy. I read “Gone with the Wind” by lantern light.

Tuesday 22nd September 1942

A deadly exam today. Two hours of a written paper on Wireless Theory; then two hours of a written paper on electricity. Guess I passed the latter (without any distinction) but am dubious about the former. So is Bob Dewhurst (we sat together) As soon as I'd finished my essay on the triode valve he said gruffly “Pass 'em over” and I pushed my papers within reach of his eagle eye.

Presently I got into difficulties, at the question, “Describe Detection.” So cautiously wrote on a scrap of paper “DETECTION?” and pushed it onto his side of the desk. No response, so I said in a stage whisper, “Oy! What's detection mean?” Dewhurst raised a haggard face. “Don't know! I'm leaving that one myself.”

Tomorrow is Tuning and Fault Finding, No.11 set; and an oral exam.

Monday 21st September 1942

Instruments exam today. We all passed, I think. As soon as it was over we rushed into our tent and began eagerly arguing.... “He said, “How many contacts are there on the DV?” and I said “Three, on the key...”” “Wrong, Bob!” “Am I buggery! Three!” “No, there's two...” “Yeah, one brings in the 20,000 ohms resistance...” “That's so the anti-sidetone...” “But what about that contact behind the key, Leonard?” “Not a contact, it's a stop.” “No!” “Yes!!”

And so on.

Sunday 20th September 1942

I have been able to buy ½ lb of Lambert and Butler's “Waverly Mixture.” It is seldom obtainable out here. In peace-time – so very long ago – I hardly smoked anything else. The first few puffs, and the familiar smell, brought pleasant memories as soon as I lit my pipe. The first thing I thought of was the road between Thorpe and Egham; then of The Red Lion Inn and Surrey days.

(I will now refrain from making any heart-breaking comments... or bitter cries)

Saturday 19th September 1942

I am on duty again – as stand-by operator for “X” car – from 7p.m. tonight until 7p.m. tomorrow night. Dewhurst has managed to get an afternoon pass today, however – the only one in the tent.

Exam lecture today. My subject was cable-laying! I spoke for 15 minutes and then was stopped. Wish they'd have let me go on for another hour, I was quite enjoying myself!

Friday 18th September 1942

Moonlit evening, last night. After I'd tuned in my wireless set at the gun park, I went across to the wash-place – it's in the open – and had a strip down wash, under the tap. There was one other man there. We talked. He told me he was a convoy driver and went up to the front and back twice a week. “Going up again in the morning,” he said, “Got some stuff for a Territorial lot.” “Who?” I asked idly. “Essex Yeomanry.” “The 104th!” “That's right,” he agreed, “They're up El Alamein way somewhere.”

He went off shortly afterwards, leaving me alone. The camp seemed suddenly silent, the moon bright – too bright and dangerous. The wind felt colder and I remembered the many times I'd washed in the moonshine like this – up there. Ghastly! I should have longed to be back in the blue again with the Regiment, but instead I shuddered and felt fey. A feeling of shrinking came over me – the hateful “bluey” - not the danger, but the weary discomfort, the insecurity, the constant movement... I finished dressing hastily, went back to the tent. It was dark and empty. still horribly fey, I went across to the Beacon Hut and felt reassured. heat was there, and noise, and something permanent, and someone I knew – Dewhurst. As we sat down to cups of tea before starting on our notes, I felt safe again.

But that was 24 hours ago and I still remember that dread sudden feeling of desolation and loneliness!

Thursday 17th September 1942

Half holiday. Again we are on duty.... Things are getting worse and everyone is dissatisfied – which is unusual just before exams at the end of a course. In the tent, we occasionally quarrel among ourselves but generally the wit is good humoured.

Someone interrupted Bronsdon this morning, whilst he was holding forth on some subject. “Did I say shit?” he asked us, looking at the interrupter, “'Cos look what's come up on my shovel.”

My final lecture is tomorrow or on Saturday. Not a technical subject this time, “Cable Laying.”

Saturday 12th September 1942

Dewhurst and I were due for the long-awaited pass today. But to our chagrin the scheme of issue of passes has been altered. You can now go out any evening (or half day) when not on duty. Fine! But under the new scheme one is on duty every other day... And we are both on duty from 7:30p.m. tonight until 7:30 p.m. tomorrow night. The bitter injustice of this made us all fed-up.

However late this afternoon an event occurred which made me, at least, more happy. My mail arrived! A thick bundle of letters – 20 in all. I was sitting in the Beacon Hut reading until 11p.m.

Friday 11th September 1942

The Course is in it's later stages now. Harder and harder problems are given for our brains to solve; tougher and tougher theories are provided for our digestion. Today however we had a drill order. I was a wireless operator – the first time I've been a wireless operator on a drill order since 1939. The set was of a new type – the no. 21 – and I managed to work it OK although I made several procedure mistakes.

What with the sandy dust, gunfire on the ranges, mass bombers (ours) and the mass flies , it was just like the “bluey” Except that we all came back to camp at half past one and had a pleasant lunch (tomatoe, cucumber, cheese, bread and margarine) with plenty of hot tea. After having had the regulation pint of tea I went up to scrounge a bit extra. The cook was giving a ½ pint “baksheesh” to such as I, and of course the usual full pint to newcomers. Gee, I was thirsty.

“This is your first, isn't it?” said the cook, dipping in his mug. And the devil, dozing in the shade of the tent, rushed in, suddenly wide awake and seized me by the throat. “Say “yes”!” the devil hissed, half imploring, half threatening. “Lovely, lovely chai! Say “yes”!”

There was a tense moment of agonising inner conflict, then, pale and shaken I said to the cook, “No. I had some before.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the devil collapse, sobbing, at my feet. “I might as well be truthful,” I said nobly, extending my mess tin. “Well, you can have a pint just the same,” said that most excellent cook, pouring in the tea. “The reward for virtue!” I said smugly as I tottered from the table.

Whereat the devil looked -(I thought) – slightly more hopeful.

Thursday 10th September 1942

Today we had the last practice lectures before the exam. My subject was “The Diode and Triode Valves” and I began by talking of the Earth and how it was flung off the sun. I told of “that envelope of air which we call the atmosphere,” of gases, liquids and solids; and then, a bit reluctantly, I revealed that electrons were the negative part of an atom. Just as I was about to commence discussing diode and triode valves, I was stopped by the instructor.

“That'll do,” he said, “Quite good. But I didn't expect you to go so deeply into the subject.

So, once again, I hardly mentioned the subject of my lecture.

Tuesday 8th September 1942

“Germans Resume Attacks on Stalingrad”
“Eighth Army driving Afrika Korps Westward”
“Our line unbroken in Western Desert”

Thursday 3rd September 1942

We've had another parachutist stand-to. And fighting continues in heavy dust storms, up there.

During the next three days we all give our third lectures. It's a 15 minute lecturette, with criticisms by the instructor. I have been allotted a somewhat deadly subject: “The Corkscrew Rule and Flemings' Right Hand Rule.” Electro-magnetism, that comes under. So far my lectures have been famous not for the knowledge displayed, but for the bullshit. I approach my subject with an involved, amusing and picturesque introduction and the time limit is reached, and I am halted before getting into the deep waters of the main theme. I have so little to say about Fleming or his rules that I shall have to follow this method again!

In about a weeks' time I shall again be eligible to enter the draw for a half-day pass to Cairo.

A new draft came in today – from UK! They marched in - it was quite a parade – at breakfast time. In parties of 200 they marched along the tarmac road through the camp. They looked tired and unshaven – they had come a long way and had been in the train all night, I imagined. They all wore topees, although the sun had hardly risen. But the extraordinary thing about them all was their colour! Universal pasty white! I'd never imagined men could be such a ghastly white! Which just shows how sunburnt we've become, without noticing it, because everyone is the same.

At the rear of the procession staggered an amusing figure – a tall officer stooping like a letter “S”. He was white – and he carried a monocle. As he passed me, he wearily screwed the monocle into his eye, the better to survey the wilderness of tents around him.

Typical example of the effete English aristocrat! A Hollywood conception.

Tuesday 1st September 1942

Yesterday morning we rehearsed – as I'd feared we should – the parachute alarm thing. We were dragged from our beds at about 4a.m. and glumly went to the appointed rendezvous. Here, eventually. I was appointed an infantry section commander and was duly given a rifle and some rounds. It was obviously only a rehearsal. After some time, we were all dismissed. In any case, it was about 6:30a.m. by then and we had to get our kits stacked for inspection. Everyone was slightly browned-off, but chiefly amused.

September the First! What an anniversary! Three years ago tonight I was called up...
I must have been prophetic when I made that last entry in my diary before proceeding to the drill hall:

“Tenderly, day that I have loved,
I close your eyes...
... Faint hands shall row you outwards,
Out beyond our sight...”

It was the end of all that I had loved, that night.

Out on a wireless scheme all morning. It was damn hot and the flies were ghastly. Still, we were able to return to hot tea and a (comparatively) decent lunch, followed by a three hour siesta in our tents. Not like those in the “Bluey”...

Tonight the evening paper says:-


But the Desert has the headlines:-


Sunday 30th August 1942

The moon is getting old, yet the jolly old parachutists have not arrived.

Incidentally the rumours of an offensive in the desert have died down, again.
Stalingrad, surprisingly, still holds out and the Russians are starting another offensive, near Rzhev.

(“Russians fighting their way into Rzher, street by street,” says today's paper.)

Cairo has been out of bounds for some days but now 15% of the Base Depot and Training Wing are allowed out into town “after duty”. So one still has to be lucky to get a pass.

Wednesday 26th August 1942


“Everything will be done to drive back the enemy”

Thus cries today's “Egyptian Mail”



Tonight there was a muster parade of the whole training wing. We were allowed to sit down and smoke. The OC told us there were a lot of rumours about a Jerry attack on the aerodrome near here. By parachutists of course. We were given instructions as to what to do in case of an alarm. I expect the buggers will stage the usual Army “rehearsal” one of these nights. A pity, because we all know what to do, and a “rehearsal” in the middle of the night will only dampen our enthusiasm. “If you are in Cairo and hear of the alarm,” said the OC, “I rely on you, as gentlemen, to come here as best you can and as quickly as possible.”

Remember “pigs” and “sub-human animals,” I thought things must be pretty bad when an OC called us “gentlemen!” However, he's perhaps a different type of officer to the others.

There is a rumour, as yet unconfirmed, - but mentioned by the OC himself at tonight's parade – that Rommel started an offensive in the desert at dawn today.

The last period today was devoted to Ohms Law problems. Dewhurst, Bronsdon and I sweated and puzzled sympathetically on our joint table. Common denominators and other mysteries! Current = voltage divided by resistance? OK! But what if you don't know the resistance?

“There'll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover...”

This is one of the latest songs, says Bob Dewhurst, who came out from England only a couple of months ago.

“There'll be joy and laughter
And peace ever after...”

And very nice too, I'm sure!

In my tent, beside the bugs, and Bronsdon and Dewhurst, are Harry Burt, Leonard Burrons and “Sanders” Simmons. Friends of a few weeks. We'll never meet again after the course finishes. Dewhurst and I seem to have been together, in some mysterious way, ever since the course began. “Are you two married?” asked Bronsdon (of Birmingham) yesterday. “You sit together in class, go to meals together. You even go to the latrines together!”

We also came to this canteen together and go to Cairo together on our half holiday. And share our money! Nevertheless, we also, will probably never meet again after the course has ended. The MEF is very large.

Dust 1942

"Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o'clock in the morning

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom...”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Monday 24th August 1942

Course still going on. Heat, mass flies, mass sweat and mass study. It's really quite refreshing to use one's brains again though. On morse, I am now the bottom student...

This afternoon I had to go across to the Base Depot RA for my pay. It is the first pay I have bothered to get since the Course started. And how hateful the Base seemed!

A great parade of men – all “A” Battery – standing in long lines in the sun – waiting. Doing nothing. Just waiting. The rolls had been called and they all stood waiting – like the patient dumb beasts this Army has made them, - for whatever the Authorities decreed should happen next. (Picking up stones perhaps? Or altering the shape of some slit trenches? Who knows?)

They were still there, waiting, long after I had done my waiting and drawn my pay (not forgetting to salute the bored officer who handed the notes to me, across the table). I looked back and saw the poor sods. It was beastly hot. There seemed to be a draft going out, for many men, instead of being on parade, were staggering away from the lines carrying bed rolls, packs, haversacks, tin hats, greatcoats and all the impedimenta of men on draft.

None looked particularly gay; there was nothing of Laurence Binyon's “...They went with songs to the battle...” These men looked savage, irritated, browned-off and hot, as they wrestled with their loads of kit.

Tuesday 18th August 1942

Today's “Mail” screams:-

“Great Welcome for Churchill”
“US Marines make further landings on Solomon Islands”

At the bottom of the page it whispers:- “Half a crown more for old people, this week”

And on an inner page:- “Britain has more pets but fewer children” “Birth rate declining steadily for last 70 years...” And a Professor comments:- “A people's birth rate is the measure of their faith in themselves. We must build a social structure in which we can welcome babies for their own sakes...”

Feeling much fitter now. This is just as well, for we're having a strenuous time (mentally), on this Signals Course. For the Army, it's an ideal existence. We do no guards or fatigues and very few parades but apart from instruction, we spend many hours each day on study and writing up notes. Haven't had time to read a book of fiction, or write a letter since the course started!

We work under difficulties though. It is so hot that when we write we cover up the whole of the page except for the space where the pen nib is moving. Otherwise the sweat oozing steadily from our hands and arms would cause smudges. Every now and then the paper with which we cover the page has to be changed. It is becoming saturated. Every few lines, we pause and dry our faces with a handkerchief. Otherwise the sweat drips down from there! And all the time, flies buzz devilishly around us.

However, we're still in the Army, and yet having to use our brains! Indeed it's getting a bit tough for my poor old desert brain already.

“...The minus SO4 ions went to the minus Zu rod and chemical action caused a sediment of ZuSO4...”
“...Total resistance = 27”
“... paraboloid mangamin 3 ¼ lens reflector...”

It is a bit tiring sometimes. But – outside the lecture hut we hear the thudding boots of less happy wretches. Drilling to win the war.

“Suppose we introduce another resistance, here...” says the lecturer at the blackboard and faintly through the windows we hear a squad of soldiers, counting, in unison.

“One, two, three, One, two, three, one.”
... “To your FRONT – SALUTE!”
“... The current will pass through this coil...”
CRASH – CRASH! “One-two. ONE,TWO,THREE,FOUR. One, two, three,One,two”

Oh yes, we are the happier mortals!

NB: If this is ever read by a professional soldier, he will doubtless point out that the sequence or emphasis in the counting in Saluting drill, given above, is incorrect. This is probably true. But there! I've never taken much interest in the Counting; it seems slightly fatuous.

Wednesday 12th August 1942

“What part of England do you come from, mate?” “Oh, so and so” “Do you? Why I've got a cousin there! Do you know 'im? Jackson?” “Not Jackson the butcher, in South Street, is it?” “Yes! Bugger me! Fancy you knowing our Jim! Know 'im well?”
“No but we get our meat there, see? Got two kids, 'ain't 'e? My nipper went to the same school – in River Road.” “Well, don't that beat it? Fancy us meeting!” “Yeah, it's a small world!”

Ad infinitum.

The above is a quite imaginary conversation, but it's typical of many one hears. For every day, we weary exiles talk of home; and by the law of averages, it's only natural one often meets someone whose path crossed yours years ago, or who at least knows of someone else whose path once went near to yours.

Having lived in so many parts of England I'm able to discuss a variety of places but not with the same depth as the typical Englishman who has lived nearly his whole life in one district, and therefore knows that one district thoroughly. Yesterday I talked about Lincoln with a man from Waddington (the Stonebow, Dunston Pillar, Sudbrooke, West Common, Brayford, Steep Hill...)

And at night, lying in bed, I was talking to a Buckinghamshire man who lived near Jack Chenery, (Penn, Beaconsfield, Burnham Beeches, High Wycombe... Fingest, Christmas Common...) until my companion fell asleep and dreamt nostalgic, haunting dreams as he told me next morning. And no wonder, as he'd come from such a lovely district! Today though, I sat, during lunch, opposite a man named Cowell, who said he came from Canvey Island. After the usual talk of places, I said, “D'you know South Benfleet Post Office? I used to know a girl there.” “Not Doris Brooks?” “Yes, but I always called her Rio.” “Yes! I used to take her out! Do I know her!” “Proper night-club queen.” “Rather! Good Lord” ““Peek-a-boo”” “Did she say that to you, too? I say, were you keen on her? She's not your girl, I mean...?” “Oh no,” I said (A bit caddish, this Cowell.) “Proper whore. But a damn good sport.” “Heaven help the man she marries!” “She is married. Last year...” “Really?”

Cowell then told me some stories of Rio which would have made my hair curl if I'd ever had any illusions about her. “Your reputation was gone if you were seen with her, man! But she was a good sort all the same,” he ended. (Definitely uneducated new rich!) Which I thought a fitting summary of Rio Brooks! - not the part in the brackets, that refers to the queer-hawk Cowell!

Some of his subsequent Island chatter really shook me though. I recalled how I once nearly joined the Canvey “Terriers” - a Coast Defence battery. “Do you know where they went?” demanded Cowell. “No...” “Iceland! For about two years!” (I'd always wanted to go to mysterious Iceland! And that's where I'd have gone if I'd signed on that night...) “Still there?” I asked bitterly. “No. They've come home.” “What! To Canvey?” “No, they're in Brentwood.” “BRENTWOOD!”

I felt still and spent and slain.

It might have been the dim, fascinating, weird Iceland. And then Brentwood. I'd be married by now, surely. There would have been no Western Desert. Oh, the bitterness of might-have-beens!

Monday 10th August 1942

After we'd all been so faithful for such a long time, I now hear that there have been six cases of desertion from the Regiment during the last two months. Four of the deserters' names are familiar to me. There are two old Regulars – proper bad hats and just the type to desert. Two more are fairly colourless tough boys who came to us with the last draft from Blighty. The last pair are apparently two of 519 HQ signallers! Unfortunately my informant couldn't recall their names, except that he didn't think they were old Yeomen. That's an easy guess anyway! Few enough remain of the old HMT “Dilwara” people!

Yesterday, skulking in the canteen, I watched the four batteries do a march past just outside,to the strident strains of “The British Grenadiers” played by the Depot Band. (“The Grenadier” is the march-past of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.)

I watched this brave show and waited expectantly; but nothing happened. The old thrill was gone for good. My hair did not crinkle, there was no goose-flesh, no tears of pride came to my eyes.

Sunday 9th August 1942

Yesterday there was a sad sequel to the note quoted overleaf!

I dozed off in my tent, but a few minutes later a plane from the RAF station near here, dived just above the camp. Savage, increasing roar of aeroplane engines! I woke up instantly. Instinct was working a fraction of a second quicker than reason. (Lie still! Don't sit up! Don't move!) Then I remembered I was far from the desert, at the Base Depot. That must be a friendly plane now roaring just overhead, not a Stuka. And at this moment as I relaxed again, Jock Forbes came into the tent, with a quizzical grin on his face!

Yes, he had been sent back, after three pleasant weeks with a coast Defence battery at Alex. Retribution overtook him! - some obscure documents somewhere had not checked correctly, I suppose. Up to the present he has not actually been charged but he expects the worst. He is to see the OC on Monday. I guessed all this as soon as I saw him smiling in the tent doorway; so I was rather sorry to see him!

This morning they were calling out names for various small drafts whilst I stood woodenly in the rear rank of my troop looking to my front like a soldier. “Bdr. Dawson '844!” bawled the BSM. “Sir!” said Number 870844 of the Royal Artillery; and I fell in with a squad of six, all NCO's, and again looked to my front. We were all to parade at 1630 hours with our kit, to proceed to ME Signals School on a course.

This is not a detail I chose; suppose it means two months of brain work. I'm only useful, now, for automatic work such as digging, picking up bits of paper, and re-arranging heaps of stones. and even that makes my body tired quickly!

Evening: The Signal School is actually a special Training Wing for artillery signallers and it is situated within the geographical bounds of Base Depot. A pretty raw place, just started. We are the pioneers!

Went to a Methodist Church service just now, for the first time. Quite accidental! I barged into the reading room just before the service commenced in there, so decided to stay and see what it was like. Very simple, sincere and informal. I missed the familiar ritual, though. There was no Lord's Prayer, no “I believe...”, no General Confession and indeed, no chanting at all! No “Lord now lettest Thou...” Several hymns of course, a well-delivered Sermon and a Reading which was not a reading at all, for the Padre almost knew it by heart!

“The day – Thou gavest – Lord – is ended...”

Wednesday 5th August 1942

At last we have definite news of the 104th, for today I met BSM (“Gorey”) Hunter of “C” Troop, at the Base. He has come down for an OCTU course. Actually he only left the Regiment yesterday. They were then having a rest and re-fit,near Alexandria.

Many changes. Captain Gardener is now RHQ. Captain Pip Beale is dead, he trod on a landmine. Major Gosling is 2 i/c at RHQ (and I'm a bombardier, at the Base!) Hignall is BSM “C” Troop, Pounds is BQMS of 519 and Ken White is NCO i/c Sigs. 339 Battery is alright of course, in fact they had far fewer casualties than 519. That's why so few 339 men have been seen down here, I guess. One of their gunners arrived today, though 339 is now with 519 near Alex. Major Strutt (“Pigs – I'll break you!” fame) has been badly wounded. Jack Chenery is alright. “A steady old file, Jack,” said the gunner.

Re my old section, “Gorey” said that Vic Naden was now i/c and a lance/Sgt. with lance/Bdr. Richardson. Jock Fleming was on wireless, also little Bert Pond, formerly of HQ Troop. Ernie Quick had gone back to the guns and was a lance/ Bdr. now.
But there are many new officers! I have never before heard the names of more than half of them! Ah! It's deadly. And so is this bloody Base. The flies are pretty ghastly here.

Herewith copy of a letter handed to me by Frank Brookes who is now at the Base – (and the only person whom I know here)

It is from one Jock and tells of the successful execution of a scheme planned at no. 2 Con. Depot:-

“ To Sgt. Dorson. 23/7/42

Dear Stev,
By the time you get this I should be in the 204 Coast Defence some where near Alex, so far everything has gone alright, hopping it will keep up, I am now on draft leaving sometime this afternoon. When I get to my unit and things settle down a bit I shall write and let you know how things are, hopping you shall get this... Alf”

Yes, the flies are a torture today. Dozens of them around me. I must start walking else I'll go bloody mad.

Saturday 1st August 1942

Tomorrow I start on the first stage of my journey towards the front – i.e. I go to Base Depot, Cairo.

Just now I am reading a true and terrifically graphic story of the Spanish Civil War, by Arthur Koestler. On tomorrow's journey however, I shall probably be reading a “crime thriller” which is in my haversack; a green and white Penguin book called “The Missing Moneylender” by one WS Sykes. It is depressing, if one let's it be, to be moving “further and further West” - into the DESERT, not into happiness! - so one is wise to cultivate a sense of detachment by means of a good mystery story.
“Dialogue with Death” is not the type of story to give one a sense of detachment – oh! hardly! - and a love story, if well written, also has the wrong effect. It is liable to raise sentimental longings and regrets...

A clever “thriller” however both soothes and stimulates and removes one's mind from he desert somewhat. Travelling Westwards, I've sometimes managed to keep my mind placidly aloof from war, right until the first bang! And afterwards! I can think of many occasions on which I've sat in a dug out, engrossed in gangsters and their bullets, whilst real-life lumps of metal flew around me!

Tuesday 28th July 1942

At breakfast, I sat at table with four Englishmen and a Canadian. We talked over our cigarettes and the final cup of tea.

“I tell you, this is the end of the British Empire, whoever wins the war. They'll sling us out of India...”
“Yes. And USA will control Australia and Canada. You see.”
“That's so. We'll sink to the level of a small power, like Holland, or Denmark”
“And the average Englishman will be just as happy too...”
“Oh I don't know. Not under the present System. It's not Democracy.”
“England's rotten and corrupt. I've finished with it...”
“Oh, come! Be British!”
“No. Don't get me wrong. I love the country – and the people who live there – the ordinary people – but the whole bloody show is run wrongly.”
“Yes. England's fine in itself. Just think of it. “All England is a garden”, sure enough.”
“Yes, but the System. I tell you, after this lot's over, I'll just go back to sort things out and then I'll be off for good. To a better country. America maybe, or Australia.”


“England has been the leader of Western civilisation; but that's all over now. She let the world drift in to this... She deserves to lose her leadership. Proved unworthy.”
“Yes. Remember when Hitler marched into he Rhineland? We could have stopped it then.”
“That's right. Poland saw the red light...”
“But England would do nothing.”

“Ah well, I suppose it's time we moved. The waiters want to clear the tables.'

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sunday 26th July 1942

The Western Desert fighting occupies only a secondary position in the news nowadays. The situation in Russia grows desperate as the latest Jerry offensive sweeps on.


And in the desert:


Saturday 25th July 1942

Now being graded “O”, I am due for discharge and shall return to Base with the next draft, in about a week's time perhaps. Shall not be sorry to leave, as I don't love this place. The officers spend too much time among us, creating petty annoyances and irritations, quite unnecessarily. No. 5 Con. Depot, at El Arish, was run very differently to this, I remember.

By Jove! There was a panic this day! Everyone's kit was examined, including sergeant's. A Base Wallah officer stalked into our tent just after breakfast (accompanied by two Sgt. Majors and and an MP) and said curtly, “Turn your kits out. Everything! Quick now!” There was none of the friendly apologies and perfunctory, trusting examination which would have come from any EY officer. This was a thorough, bristling, suspicious search.

Of course, as some writer, an ex-soldier once said:- “The Army makes one a dull, uncomplaining whipping-boy”, so we humbly displayed all our private possessions, as ordered. Someone however said respectfully, “Has something been stolen, sir?”
“Yes!” snapped the officer, “a watch, a camera, a fountain pen and other articles. From the officer's quarters.”

They found my camera and took it away. “I didn't steal it,” I protested, “I bought it in Cairo, nearly two years ago. It's registered with my unit.” “If it is yours, you'll get it back,” was the reply. The camera was returned to me later in the day, without apologies. No, the Army had the last word! I was reprimanded for not having the camera registered here, and warned not to attempt to take any photographs in the camp. As if I'd want to take any snaps of this gaol!

Despite the rigorous search, the missing articles are still not recovered. Of course, it's possible that the thief was one of the scores of Arabs who work here! No, the thief may not have been one of we sub-human animals of the Britannic Majesty's Army!

Dear, dear! I'm afraid I'm rather bitter! And I'm still not a real soldier, after all these years!

Friday 24th July 1942

I've had no mail for many weary weeks; but I've just re-read a letter which tells me that I met Her on September 20th 1938. Nearly four years ago. (And yet, how little I know of her, even now!) Wonder what I put in my diary for September 20th '38? Nothing about her, I know. I was afraid to mention her in my diaries for a long time after that, for it seemed impossible that it could be true...

I should have known, though. Why, the very date! September 19 – 21, my fateful days!
If I had dared, this is what I might have written in my diary on September 20th 1938:

I had a curious experience today. Well, I say experience but it was all over in a second, actually. It happened in Billericay. On the advice of a customer's wife, I went to a cafe here, called The Cottage, for lunch. All quite normal. The place was empty when I arrived. sat down on a sofa beside the fire and picked up a magazine.

The door opened suddenly and a girl came in. She was tall and had nice, tweedish clothes. She seemed to have some sort of a kerchief thing on her head. Vaguely attractive. Well, of course, many girls are vaguely attractive. But – was it raining outside? I forget. This girl seemed vividly fresh; rainwet and windfresh. As though drops of moisture were glistening on her hair. One imagined the rough, friendly wind itself had blown her suddenly into the room. It was uncanny.

Yes, there was something indescribably unspoilt and sudden and unstifled about her. Like a blade of green grass, dew-wet, in a field far from any houses, in the morning! All these thoughts flickered through my mind in a second, as our eyes met, whilst I dare say, I gasped at her expressionlessly. Then her eyes laughed and she said “Hullo!”

Just like that as though she'd expected to see me, suddenly, with an exclamation mark, in the sort of colourful voice one would expect her to have. My God! What was she to me? Nothing, nothing, of course. My life was placidly arranged. What the hell? - And yet -

I see I use the word “suddenly” several times in that little true story. Well, why not? She is a very sudden person!

Sunday 19th July 1942

Jock went back to Base this morning. Last night we went across to the lido, on the Canal bank near here – not to swim but to smoke, drink many cups of tea and play chess in the attached canteen. This place is pleasantly reminiscent of a low-class English cafe. It remains open late at night, untidy, hot and friendly; and as in the English counterpart, there is the small group of late patrons, spread about the tables, arguing or playing cards or recounting anecdotes. Last night Jock and I came away at about 10:30p.m. Finis Jock.

There is a lull in the desert fighting; in some places. Jerry has withdrawn slightly. Altogether things are more normal. The Canal is busy once again with shipping going north, towards the Med. In the latest intake are several 519 gunners, few known to me except Lance Bdr. Johnnie Blakey. They all seem to have hold of this rumour that 339 are “in the bag”. Don't suppose there will be any definite news yet.
Things must be getting settled! Even the open air cinema at this Con. Depot, will be running it's shows again as from tonight.

The Adjutant of this depot, with an insolence reminiscent of the infamous Lady Astor, recently published an Order in which we were abused as “sub-human animals in uniform”. A pretty phrase! This outburst was occasioned by some gentleman in khaki who had deposited his excreta in one of the urinals.

Khamsin 1942

"Now I am still and spent
And lie in a whited sepulchre
Breathing dead.
But there will be
No lifting of the damp swathes
No return of blood
No rolling away the stone
Till the cocks carve sharp
Good scars in the morning...”

Thursday 16th July 1942

It isn't quite so cushy for sergeants here, nowadays. We have to go on parade three times a day – at 5:45a.m., 7:45a.m. and 5:15p.m. In between there is nothing to do except for frequent medical inspections, which usually involve many hours of waiting.
These three roll calls are apparently to prevent convalescents deserting or slipping away for a few hectic hours into the nearest town. It's quaint to see men on crutches or with a leg in plaster, creeping slowly and painfully towards the parade ground! How possibly could such as these hitch-hike the 20 odd miles into Ishmailia?

I'm feeling better now and not quite so tired except during the heatful hours of the middle day. In the evenings when it is cooler, I go for a walk with Jock Forbes. The bowl of my pipe gets warm in my fingers and the smoke drifts away scarcely quite visible, whilst his cigarette glows red in sympathy.

We usually finish up by sprawling on the sand in between our two tents, while the last tale is told.

Ends the Second Part of Shimmering Haze 1942.

Tuesday 14th July 1942

“700 HE Shells Blast Enemy Base”
“Our Artillery Active at El Alamein”
“Australians make dramatic re-appearance in desert battle”

It seems to me that the morale of the MEF is very low nowadays – extremely, dangerously low. I've listened to men of all ranks, from many different regiments, discussing the war, listened to the news with them and heard their comments; heard them tell of the dispirited units they came from in the desert; heard their criticisms of the way in which the war is directed; and noted the universal longing to see England again, even if only for a short time.

Discipline is cracking in small ways – for instance, men are sometimes sullen and hostile towards their officers; and many times in the past six months I've heard senior ranks, such as sergeants and even warrant officers, discussing their grievances with privates, and gunners. In general, the MEF (Army at any rate) is cynical, critical, bitter and irritable – but not resigned. Men are restless and fed up.

The news of small victories, heard on the wireless, is too often greeted with ironical and sneering remarks. The very cause for which we are fighting is in doubt and time and again one hears it said: “We're not fightin' for democracy mate. There's no such thing. Capitalism! That's what we're here for!” Or else: “I'm a nobody. Just a working man. What difference will it make to me an' my family if Germany does win the war? None!”

There's a definite “Bolshie” spirit about – if there's any spirit at all! - and if we were fighting Russia now (apart from our inferiority in numbers and equipment) there'd be no doubt about our defeat, for the men would have no heart at all for fighting a country which is so definitely against our system of government.

The other night, at a concert, a comedian in the course of his “patter” mentioned England. “Where's England?” shouted several voices. “Out of bounds to British troops!” was his quick retort. This repartee was greeted with ironical cheers – but there was real bitterness beneath the laughter.

Just now, as I was writing this, a man came up to a friend, sitting near me, who was reading the newspaper. “So we've invaded Europe at last?” “Yes. Rather!” “The “second front” huh? Reading all about it?” “Yes,” said the reader, and pointed towards a paragraph headed: “Germans Cross River Don in Force” Then both men laughed, as at a good joke.

The nature of Army training makes men dull and cynical and wooden; and for some reason the majority out here always have pretended to be defeated and browned off. Nowadays there is no pretence however – it is real. And though most soldiers are still cynical, few are now dull or wooden.

Are the civilians at home like this? And the Home Forces (for of course, there are hundreds of thousands of British troops in England)? Are they, also in low spirits?
I'd be interested to know. If the morale of the MEF is typical of the whole British nation, these are danger signals indeed.

What has brought about this attitude of defeatism? The recent disastrous desert campaign is not, I think, the cause so much as the culmination of a weary history of muddling, mistakes, unpreparedness, losses, retreats, disappointments, defeats, disillusionment's and evacuations. And, for the MEF, there's the desert, over and over again; the climate; and the hopelessness of nostalgia for England.

Sunday 12th July 1942

“Take 1500 prisoners in 5 mile advance from El Alamein positions.”

Friday 10th July 1942

Yesterday, Britten, who has a temporary office job said casually to me, “I've got three fellows from 104 RHA in my division. Want their names?” “Yes please! Probably don't know them though; half the people are strangers to me, since the last re-organisation.” Ernie took out a piece of paper.

“Gunner Jackson, 237 Battery...”
“Gunner Donaldson, 237...”
“Never heard of him.”
“Gunner Forbes, A, 519...”
“Jock Forbes! Yes! Where is he?”

It took me about half an hour to locate Jock, in a tent quite near mine. He has been here 5 days and will be going fairly soon. We were together most of the afternoon and evening. Mass smoking and talking. Jock was convalescing from burns received on his hands, whilst he was dragging the swearing Duke and screaming Tom out of the flames. Then he threw off the gear – as much as possible – in the back of the truck, helped by Ernie Quick. “It was like a nightmare,” he said, “The gunners standing around. Doing nothing. Gaping.”

Their trials had begun about 20 minutes after I went to see the MO at RHQ that night, whilst the Duke was still away with M2. “Prepare to withdraw!” It had been an absolutely quiet day, too. From then on,all was panic, danger, discomfort and disorder. It certainly seemed as though I carried the lucky charm this time, and I brought the luck away with me when I came.

But Jock kept on returning, somehow fascinated, to the end of M2. “They sat there, burning. Nobody did anything. (“Shoot me Jock, shoot me if my leg's gone”) But Duke soon recovered. “The bastards! The rotten bloody sods! A mine!... Is my eye bandaged, Jock, I can't see out of it?... Is my face marked badly?... Are you sure my foot's not off?... Can I have a fag?... I feel sleepy...”

Still no news of 339 Battery. I wonder whether Newby and Morgan were killed – or burnt to death?

Wednesday 8th July 1942

As, after being here a week, I still feel old and full of aches and pains, without appetite for food or interest in living, I reported sick this morning. At 7:40a.m., I shambled over to the Div. Office and had my name, age, religion, etc, inscribed on Army Form B256.

At 9a.m. I paraded hopefully with many others, outside the Medical Inspection Room and began waiting. At 11:50a.m. I was seen by the MO. His questions, and thoughtful silences, made me think that I could hear the sparrows twittering in English hedges. But no! He merely told me to attend three times a day for a tonic to be administered.

Pulse now racing at 120, I crept back to my tent (being overcome with a slight attack of retching, en-route) and lay down.