Monday, December 01, 2008

Saturday 21st November 1942

We are within sight of the bloody pyramids again! Came down, part of the advance party, very fast and at short notice, yesterday afternoon.(Alas for our dear bell tent!) After a foul journey we reached Alex. last night. The main party stayed at Amirya, but we went on into the town and dropped Apple at an hotel.

Then the dusty “K”, alone thundered along the moonlit esplanade. Dark houses on our right, white waves rolling in on our left. Found Mustapha Barracks Transit Camp quite easily and there was astonishingly little formality; it was obviously not Almaza! The barracks seemed deserted. We put “K” in the vehicle park, and met an Aussie who said, “Jees, it's cold!” and directed us to the NAAFI. Three dusty, dirty men marched into the almost empty, cosy, soft lighted canteen, pleasantly conscious of the supercilious glances of the clean, well-dressed clientele. It was a very respectable NAAFI.

We slept on a verandah beside “K” at the park. It rained heavily but we kept dry. Up at 6:30a.m. this morning. Not a soldier in sight, only a few Wogs, cleaning up. Then we heard a tuneless whistling and a soldier came across the square, carrying a plate and mug. “Where's breakfast, Chum?” He told us. The dining hall was eerily quiet and nearly empty. So strange, after the crowds among whom one normally dwells. I had a shave and a hair brush in a barber's shop – there was no-one else there except Monty Liss.

Picked up Apple at 8 o'clock and then dashed Cairo-wards, catching up the rest of the party. Near the Mena Camp area we halted some hours, whilst the officers were on recce. An elegant Royal Signals man stood beside us, flicking a thumb towards Cairo each time a lorry passed. He was pale and intense and carried a book, “Oil Paint and Grease Paint: The Autobiography of Dame Laura Knight”. “I am going to Persia,” he confided to us (Perfect strangers! This security!) “We're going pretty soon now.” “Been to the Bluey?” asked Cliff. “Oh yes. The desert you mean? Only for a month though. I've been out here three months. Had dysentry in the desert. Dreadful.” “What is Blighty looking like?” demanded Monty. This shook Cliff and I, for Monty Liss only came out himself about four months ago. We speedily exposed him to the pallid signalman.

Eventually we drove on and turned off the main road by a latrine which was marked “VC's ONLY”. I was well aware that this did not refer to holders of the Victoria Cross... We unloaded the truck beside an old cook-house, quite near the site of our camp last April. Half of us went into Cairo for the evening and had a meal and what enjoyment could be had with our limited funds.

“ALLIES THITY MILES FROM BIZERTA” cried the evening paper's headlines.

And Libya: “AXIS FORCES QUIT BENGHASI”

“Our columns have reached Esc Scelidima” (Damn! Why couldn't we be there?)

In the Springbok Club we saw our intense friend of the morning, still alone with his book. “Oy Oy!” I said. He looked at us blankly. “Got in OK then?” I said, fatuously, as a recognition signal. He smiled, nodded distantly and then sank into “Oil Paint and Grease Paint” again.

Came back to camp at 1p.m. Slept (very soundly) in the old cook house.

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