Thursday, November 06, 2008

Tuesday 10th February 1942

"Where are we?” was my first question when I awoke, at 8 o'clock. “Take a look, Steve,” said someone by the door. I sat up, looked, and lay down again, grumbling. Sandy desert all around, as far as the eye could see. “Maybe we're going north,” said someone hopefully. (Ah, Syria or Turkey or even Russia! Not so thirsty!) “Which side is the sun?” I asked. “It's just risen. On the left.” “Then we're obviously going south.” “Yeah, that's right.” “This is Sinai.” Where to, beyond the Canal?

Someone started a “book” again. They've been running a “book” for some time, since this rather mysterious move was in the wind. Syria had been 60/1 but it now went to 95/1. Of course, said the Syrians, we might get equipped in Egypt and come back, see?
Blighty was the rankest of the outsiders – 1000/1 and no takers! The “bluey” was 6/1, Australia 5/1, Burma 4/1, Dutch East Indies 20/1 and Egypt (garrison troops) 33/1.
Which shows what a wide range we had to consider!

All day long we clattered and crawled, jerking and jolting across the white Sinai Desert. We reached Cantara East just before dusk. I was on the baggage party, which meant that I didn't have to hump my kit over the Canal but had to do a good deal of loading and unloading and was late for supper at the transit camp. We were eventually relieved by another party, otherwise we'd probably have had no grub at all.

An officer came into the transit mess hall eventually and found us tranquilly reading the evening news. (Japanese landing on Singapore, defenders withdrawing, situation well in hand.)

“Ah, here you are!” he cried. “You in charge Dawson?” “Yes sir.” “How many men have you got?” “Twelve sir.” “Do you know what time the train goes from Cantara West?” “Forty five minutes time.” “And how long will it take you to get across?” “15 minutes sir.” “Do you know the way from here to the Canal? In the dark?” “Perfectly, sir. It's only a 100 yards.” “Well, I'll go and reconnoitre the route,” he said. (Ye gods! I thought.) “If I'm not back in 20 minutes, take the men over. Keep together. See they all get on the train, Dawson.” “Right, sir.” He dashed off.

“Cripes,” said someone, “They don't give us much credit for bleedin' intelligence, do they?”

He was back quite soon. “There's only half an hour so I think we'd better be moving. I'll come with you.”

All was chaos at Cantara West Station. The kit was stacked in the darkness but I managed to find my own pack and someone else's roll of blankets. The kit bags were in convoy somewhere and I had the rest of my gear on me – greatcoat, haversack, water bottle and the precious signal satchel containing photographs etc. and this book.

The train was crowded but eventually I, with half a dozen others, got into a sort of cage at the rear of the train – an animal carriage with bars all around it. An anxious officer came along. “104 there?” “Yes sir.” “Who is the senior NCO or man in there?” “I am, sir.” “Remember to get off at Qassassin Dawson.” “Right sir.”

Until then, none of us had even known our immediate destination. The other occupants of the cage were in bad temper (“this Regiment is bloody zift,” “yeah, a heap of shit,” “I'm bloody fed up,” “aw, damn this game,” etc. etc.) but why, I don't know. A bit of panic in the darkness and some rough travelling, were inevitable.
On the platform below, the more refined Middlesex Yeomanry were equally irritable as they packed themselves into the train (“stop pushing, will you?” “for God's sake keep in the queue,” “I say, get a move on!” and so forth.)

I couldn't see anything to tick about on this occasion. I'd got some blankets and my own would doubtless turn up sometime; if not, maalesh.

About an hour later we detrained at Qassassin and were met by lorries which took us to a camp of tents in the desert, about 4 miles away. Things were quite well organised. Guides led us to our various tents and from there to the mess tent (tea and stew) We were all in bed by midnight. Each tent had a lamp so there was no scrambling in darkness. Qwise!


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