Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sunday 7th February 1943

An anniversary today, for many of us in the Regiment. And what an anniversary.
It is three years since we left England. At this hour, three years ago tonight, we were lying off Southampton. When the dusk deepened, earlier in the day, I'd taken my last look at the English coast.

As you were! I've just checked dates and events in the appropriate diary and I was wrong. Tonight, three years ago, we were leaving Southwell... Sentimental departure. Reading back, I was surprised to remember how Eileen had stirred me. Now it is April, April, April.

Then: “I cautiously flashed my torch in the prearranged way. I whistled “La Paloma” It was possible she would, somewhere, hear that tune from the body of men standing in the road... “B Troop, quick march!” and I heard her call from the pavement outside the gate, “Good luck, Stephen!” I think every man in the troop yelled in answer. It was chaotically incoherent, but as the thudding boots inexorably carried me further away from her, I called, “Auf Wiedershen, Eileen!” “Auf Wiedershen, Stephen!””

So! (That was a very neat sentence, about the inexorably thudding boots) That's the way it was, then. What strange instinct made me shout, at that moment, in the tongue of our enemies – “'till we meet again!”? Well, I fear we shall not meet again, little Eileen, but you were very nice and brought colour to my last weeks in England, so I thank you and remember you.

Three years abroad, and their ending seems to find me at my lowest ebb of gaiety. Seldom have I felt so depressed with the Army, the Regiment and the future. The old Regiment has gone, not suddenly, but insidiously, as one man after another of the old Essex Yeomanry disappeared. It is different now. The 104th RHA is growing more and more like Almaza, The Base Depot RA. Signalling? I'm absolutely sick and tired of it and feel I could scream at sight of cable reels and wireless sets...

This morning we were told that there was a voluntary church service. All men who did not volunteer would be put on fatigues. Every man in HQ Troop, nearly everyone in 519 Battery, was therefore put on fatigues. The food nowadays is the worst it has been for some time. The cooks do their best, but the rations are simply inadequate. Bread every other day...

Jack Chenery and I climbed Jebel Mazar this afternoon. Did some tricky rock scrambles too. It was quite enjoyable, but somehow I could not shake off my fit of depression, even with Jack, in high clear air.

The Wednesday night gramophone recital went adrift. It was to be held tonight, so I tramped hopefully through the mud to the camp cinema building. At last I would hear the full “Swan Lake”. But all was darkness in the cinema. Monty Liss and I heard eerie whisperings and faint sounds of singing. We couldn't tell if there were two people or a hundred in there. I struck a match, which revealed Jack Chenery, George Kerry, Armstrong and Dent.

Waiting... The Padre had re-arranged the times, and there was some sort of service on. We waited half an hour, then Bill Bax – who'd been enticed into the service – called us in. The Padre hadn't got the gramophone there, or any records. He began to make plans for this. And should we go somewhere else for the recital. And what records were to be fetched? Faust? Beethoven? Mozart. “What about the “Swan Lake” sir?” asked Bill. “Oh, that. I don't think I've got it now,” said the Padre.

At this point, I filed away in disgust. Armstrong, Bax and the rest came into the canteen later on. They said there had been no recital at all, in the end. If only these officers, incompetent, would let competent men run their own social pleasures! Such as Bill Bax. I'm rather glad not to be running the canteen any more, too. The officers are interfering too much, nowadays, telling Pat how to run it. Not to mention he officer who took £S8 from the canteen funds to buy paint for bullshit purposes in his troop and refuses to pay it back...

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