Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saturday 14th March 1942

Every building in Tobruch has battle scars now, I think. The 104th party was late in arriving at the Garrison Church and we found the Confirmation service already in progress. A Bishop, all scarlet and gold, presided at the end of a long room full of dusty soldiers. Behind him was a rough altar on which two candles burned. The air raid siren wailed. Our Padre knelt as Search and Co. went forward. I remained behind – unbaptised!

The Service ended; we all went to the YMCA for tea and biscuits and I began to feel disconsolate – it looked as though I was not to be confirmed today. However the Padre suddenly re-appeared. “Come on Dawson, it's alright after all. I'll baptise you myself, now, and then the Bishop will confirm you!” A driver from RHQ named French, came along as a witness.

We hurried along the sunny street and into a chapel adjoining the church. One couldn't imagine anything more informal. The Padre put vestments over his dusty khaki and gave me a book so that I could make the responses. We started. The sudden roar of a plane and deafening crash of ack-ack guns. Chiefly Bofors, I thought automatically. The Padre continued reading but I could no longer hear his words, there was too much noise. He took my right hand, dipped his fingers in a bowl of water, made the sign of the Cross on my forehead. The flurry of firing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. I stood up. The Padre grinned. “The Bishop will be here in a minute, Dawson.”

In he came, a large and jovial man in purple under-vestments, pursued by three soldiers. “Here we are!” “Could we have your autograph sir?” asked a soldier. “Certainly!” boomed the Bishop, “If you've got a pencil!” He signed a book, a girls' photograph and a family group. “This your boy?” “Yes sir, two years old.” “Ha!” “Thank you very much sir.” “It's a pleasure. Now, where's the candidate?”

He hastily donned his scarlet and gold. “Stephen John? Right! Stand there will you?”
Thus I was confirmed, a few minutes after being baptised, not, as I'd often imagined it, in an English Cathedral with crowds of people there and massed ceremonies; but very quietly, very informally, in friendly fashion in a Libyan house converted into a chapel. As soon as it was over (it only took about three minutes) he beamed at me and shook my hand (in a large paw). “Splendid!” he boomed “Glad I was able to get you done! Difficult in war time!”

In the YMCA, where we found the others waiting, someone was playing a piano, quite decently. Sindings “Rustle of Spring.”

We came back towards the miredam, past the harbour, full of old wrecks. By the quay, a Free French ship was being unloaded; in the middle of the harbour, a ship was burning. We came along the familiar road, with many ruined trucks and armoured cars alongside it and a new NAAFI storehouse. Past the cemetery and to the water point, where we turned off. “Wonder if that jolly sergeant is still there? The one who used to give us a drink when we called in at the point.” “Oh no! Didn't you know? He was killed in an air raid. Sometime ago, during the siege.” “Was he? Nice old boy.” “Yes.”

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