Thursday, December 04, 2008

Monday 21st December 1942

Tomorrow night there is a Christmas dinner party for 463 and RHQ. But tonight is the evening for 339 and 519. Last year, at Sarafend, it was 414 and 339. There will be far fewer of the Essex Yeomanry this year.

Just before the dinner commenced, “Steve” Stevens and Percy Burch (of 339) arrived with – Wilbur Underhill! (Apparently a good effort had been made to rake-in the old members of the Essex Yeomanry – those who were in the Cairo area, not those who are in Persia – or in Tobruch, Bardia, Sidi Barrani, at El Alamein, or at Nowhere in the desert, or in Italian prison camps) Alas! We soon had to part, for 519 and 339 were dining separately.

They told me that I had to propose a toast – the toast of the King. I was going to say, “We're now going to drink to the King. Remember boys, you're not drinking to the health of a man you've perhaps never seen; you're toasting what he stands for as well - England. So here's – to the King and our country – happiness.” My schemes though, were thwarted, for in the confusion and babel of voices, the BSM, trying to restore order, got it for an instant and then baldly proposed the King's health. That left me to propose the toast of the BC, which I did, in a few ill-chosen words.

After that things got a bit disordered. More and more beer appeared. Bert Bond reeled along, saying I was one of the best; there was Ted Gayler looking a bit uneasy; some sergeant-majors' making speeches no one could hear. Stan Ling came in, looking slightly artful and wide-awake as he usually does, confidentially asking, was it true I was engaged? Jock Forbes telling me about some disgrace of the Essex Regiment.

Then Ted and I went into the 339 hut, where similar chaos prevailed. Wilbur was laughing whimsically, whilst Steve flourished a mug, crying, “This feller was once my number one, in “H” truck. He taught me all I know of wireless, and now I'm a bombardier!” (“And I'm still a waste!” said Wilbur, eyes a-twinkle.)

The four of us adjourned, with bottles, to Steve's tent. Suddenly mass men, all quite strangers to me, rushed in. “Meet Wilbur,” bellowed Steve, “He taught me all I know! Now I'm a bloody bombardier, so stand to attention when you speak to me!”
Then:- “I'm Ginger Windsor,and a friend of Bert Bonds' is a friend of mine. I'm the Duke and I'm from Liverpool”...
“Where's the guardroom?” said a lurching figure. “Steve! He anticipates his fate!” “No, he's on guard!”
“You've always been an NCO, but you're for the men”... “He used to detail me to clean the remote control, on “H” truck”...
“Yes, I'm the second Duke; and Whacker Newton was one of the best. And now he's on his way home and good luck to him...”
“Let's have a piss. This is the officer's latrine”... “Good”
“Jackie Hall! Ye Geordie whore ye!”... “Steve lad!”...
“Once driver of M1, now driver of M2”...
“Yeah, 'bin promoted”...
“Bombardier Stevens is our bombardier and he's alright. But that Sergeant Search!”... “Well stand to bloody attention, when you speak to me!”
“Steve boy, my family comes first, and then it's Fred Langley, and then you, boy”...
“Got a match, Wilbur, for my pipe?” “Here you are!”
“He's a driver and he's been driven to the dogs by that Sergeant Search”...
“If he was on my truck, he'd be alright”...
“This is Wilbur Underhill that taught me wireless. And now....”

I saw Wilbur to his truck. First we went to the guard room, where a gloomy atmosphere was noticeable. It was inhabited by non EY men – 463 Battery. They sent us to RHQ and said they knew nothing about a truck for the visitors. “Mind those stones Steve” “It's alright Wilbur. I saw them. I stepped right over them”
“That guard room – very instructive.” “Yeah, wastes!” “Seemed a different spirit, in there.”
“Wilbur, I'm proud of you. You're sensitive to atmosphere old man. Those are all non-Yeoman – of the new battery 463.”

At RHQ they were climbing on board the trucks. And those who couldn't climb, like Jimmie James and Blue Tyrer (both at Base on a course) were lifted in.

“Steve, Ray Fullerton's in here.” “Yes?” “When did he leave the regiment?” “Dunno” “Remember his wife? She died...” “Yes” “My field is still to come, boy.” “Your what?” “My field of romance.” “Ah, yes.” “His is past.” “Yeah, but what about Nellie at Southwell, Wilbur?” “Finished.” “But you're glad it happened?” “Sure, Steve.” “I remember you telling me about it. On the old “Dilware”, coming out. And I was reading “The Documents in the Case” at the same time.” “Yes! You lent it to me, later on!” “No, I lent it to you then, on the old “Dilwara”” “Did you Steve?” “Think so!”

With a jerk the lorry started. “Always good-bye, Steve.” “See you again, before we go! “Music for All,” on Christmas Day?” “Which Christmas?” “This Christmas Day!”
“OK!” came a faint voice as the lorry gathered speed, “I'll be there, drunk or sober!”

The lorry bumped away, raising a little cloud of dust. It was cold. I came home, to my ammo truck. And wrote this, by candlelight.

As Wilbur and I stumbled around the camp that night, in search of the visitor's truck, I became gloomily conscious of the sand we were wading through – as always. So, “Dust be my destiny!” I cried bitterly. “That's good!” exclaimed Wilbur, “Now, where does that saying come from?” “From nowhere,” I said proudly, “I invented it. Just this minute.” “Tripe!” sniffed Wilbur.

Suddenly Wilbur said, “I know why we're both the same as when we started out, Steve, whilst so many others have been promoted...” “Why, because neither are very keen on promotion, I suppose.” “No! It goes deeper than that. Neither of us are in the war, really.” “No?” I said sceptically. “Of course not! You and I – we're sort of detached. We are both here as observers, spectators. We're just non-committal observers, collecting impressions and memories; recording and chronicling. That's all! See what I mean?” “Uh-huh,” I grunted, impressed with our role.

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