Ch7 Pt2 Sarafand, Palestine and Watermelon

It was borne upon me as time went on that throughout the Christian era, the Jews had had an incredibly hard time, most particularly in Europe. The Second World War was possibly the hardest time of all, and barely a family existed in all Europe that had not been decimated as a result of Hitler’s orders to resolve the so-called “Jewish Question” by sending six million innocent men, women and children to the gas chambers and incinerators for the mortal sin of professing the wrong religion.

It was to save the remnants of these tortured communities and to make sure that such a holocaust never occurred again that the leaders of Jewish Palestine wanted the British to allow increased immigration. Bevin, the Labour Foreign Minister of the time, to his eternal discredit, actually turned immigrant ships around and sent their occupants back to those dreadful concentration camps in Europe of which they were the sole survivors.

This was why, that night when my train stopped in the middle of Sinai, near Gaza, British troops were searching soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who had fought beside us in the war – because they might have been members of the Haganah, the secret Jewish army dedicated to the removal of the British mandate which was strangling the already tortured Jewish community. This was why, in later years, when I returned to Israel, people spoke to me of the British Mandate in terms of disgust as “The British Shame”.

These things I was to understand more fully at a later date as realisation dawned on me.

The Christian religion is basically an intolerant religion, for it postulates that only those who accept its tenets may be saved. Yet it is based upon the same Bible on which Judaism erects its principles, excepting, of course, the New Testament. I often wonder if it would help matters were that Christian clergy to make a point of emphasising that Christ was a Jew and a rabbi, and that he was killed by the Romans, not the Jews. Furthermore, that the Ten Commandments were brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, the Jewish Patriarch, and are of equal importance to both Jews and Gentiles.

My own view is that all our religions have failed in one way or another — and I regretfully have to include Judaism – because in the final analysis they elevate belief in some dogma or another over the most important fact of all, the fact of mankind’s common humanity.

After the search of the Jewish soldiers had finished, our train began to move, and within an hour we reached Gaza, a lost little outpost, where I was the only one to alight. A tumbledown cabin, threatening to collapse at any moment, seemed to serve as some sort of an office. I inquired through an opening if anybody knew anything about me, and of course, nobody did. After a few minutes, the person in charge of the office, a young soldier whose khaki shirt tails flapped carelessly outside his shorts, decided to telephone the unit which I was supposed to join. Not less than a quarter of an hour afterwards I heard him asking someone to send transport to pick me up. He then informed me that I would have to wait four hours before my truck arrived, so I sat resignedly down on my kit, feeling the sun get hotter and hotter, and the sweat begin to seep into my shirt.

I dozed off, dreaming about a farm in the Argentine, which I had once had hopes of buying after the war, after winning the Irish Sweepstakes, of course. Suddenly a distant noise brought me to wakefulness. At the bend of the black ribbon of bitumen stretching across the yellow, sandy countryside, a jeep turned suddenly into view. When it drew up, I asked the driver and his armed escort what time it was.

“Half past ten.”

Not bad. I had only waited three hours.

“Pile your kit into the back, chum,” said the escort, who sat next to the driver.

“Sure. Do you always go around armed to the teeth like that?”

The soldier fingered his Sten gun. “Orders. Terrorists knocking about. Every driver has to have an armed escort.”

I climbed on the jeep. I say “on” because by the time I had stowed my kit behind the two front seats, the only place left for me was on top of it. There was a grinding of gears and a sudden rocket-like start which nearly threw us all into the road. Typical! Even if the soldiers hadn’t been wearing red berets, I would have known I was back in the Airborne Div. Then we began to hurtle through the countryside.

This part of Palestine was very attractive. The earth gave one the impression of dryness, yet everywhere there was green. Great green cacti often bordered the route, enclosing orange groves whose oranges were at this time still quite small, and of the same dark green as the foliage surrounding them. Sometimes we passed an open yellow space next to a collection of clay dwellings, where Arab boys crushed corn by means of a small platform harnessed to heavy, patient oxen. Elsewhere men separated the wheat from the chaff by the age-old method of tossing everything into the air and letting the wind carry away what was not wanted. Arab women passed by, hips swaying, with a tall pitcher, a watermelon, or some bundle or other balanced on their heads. The women here were better clothed than their counterparts in Egypt. Long robes, often many-coloured reached almost to the ground, greatly contrasting with the drab tatters of the Egyptian peasant woman, and the veil was rarely worn. The galabieh of the Egyptian peasants was rarely in evidence here. Most of the men wore overcoat-like garments, somewhat shabby slacks, or trousers which were tightly fitting in the calf and baggy in the seat.

The relative wellbeing of these Arabs and the green of the countryside were all the more striking after the dirt and sterility of Egypt. In Egypt, every village had been dirty and dusty. Here, there was verdure. The roads were excellent, although inclined to be a little narrow. Even the houses of the Arabs, made of clay like those in Egypt, but thatched like old English cottages, seemed cleaner and far more attractive as they nestled snugly just off the road. Much of this superiority in living conditions stemmed from the efforts of the Jewish pioneers to improve what had been a most inhospitable land.                                                

We eventually reached the headquarters of the Sixth Airborne Division, where I spent the night, met several comrades from the old First Airborne Division, and made additions to my kit. The next day I went to join the Second Parachute Brigade at Sarafand Cantonnement, an immense camp of tents and barracks – almost a town of its own – between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  On the second day of my stay here, the garrison was called out to Tel Aviv to trace two British officers who had been kidnapped by terrorists. I tried to do a deal with the sergeant major, known to us as “Slapsy”, but was unsuccessful, and found myself left behind in the camp on duty in the Signal Office. A day and a half later the men returned, having succeeded in winkling out neither the kidnappers nor the kidnapped. They had, however, discovered several arms caches. One of them was under a barn, one of the pillars of which served as a ventilator. Another was beneath a children’s playground in which kiddies danced around a maypole, each one taking a cord dangling therefrom. As these children danced in a circle, each with his cord, a small fan was set in motion, and this assured a circulation of air in the underground cache.

The Jews in Palestine were aware that the British Mandate was drawing to its close, and that when it did the might of the surrounding Arab nations would be turned against them and they would need every weapon they could get to defend themselves. The imagination of the British never extended that far. We saw the matter only in terms of “Terrorists” arms caches whose weapons might be used against us. Due to our restrictive immigration policy, of course, they sometimes were.

The modern all-Jewish city of Tel Aviv was out of bounds to us. At this time, however, I was more concerned with visiting Jerusalem, which was only thirty miles away. Jerusalem was not out of bounds, but it was extremely difficult for a soldier to get there, either by ‘bus or by hitch hiking, because we were so far from the main road. Furthermore, it was a strongly enforced rule that we should go out in threes at least, and never without arms. Thus it became a question of finding two other people as anxious to go to Jerusalem as I was, who had enough money to make the trip, and who were off duty on the same day and at the same time as I. There were so few people in our Signals Section that it was hard to fulfil these conditions. Then, to clinch matters, two days after the raid on Tel Aviv, we began to prepare to move camp. No more passes, came the order, until the removal of the entire camp, lock, stock and barrel, was complete.

So we transported ourselves three miles away to Bir Selim, just outside Bir Yakov. This small Jewish colony, even further away from civilisation, consisted chiefly of half a dozen bistros with signs outside in square Hebrew characters. It seemed that after travelling a quarter of the way round the world to Palestine, I was not yet to be able to visit Jerusalem. A week later, I was sent to the Sixth Battalion, who were stationed at a large mixed army and air force camp in the desert. While I was at Bir Selim, however, I did finally manage to take a very quick look at Jerusalem.

After plaguing the life out of “Slapsy”, I managed to get myself chosen for the unpleasant job of escort for a comrade who was going to spend two weeks in the military prison at Jerusalem for having left the camp by himself and without arms. Thus, maybe for an hour, I was able to feast my eyes on the white buildings of this modern, hilly city, where it is so warm during the day, and on occasion remarkably chilly at night. I also went to the top of the tower next to the YMCA for a quick panoramic view of the surrounding country.    

Unfortunately we had to return to camp almost at once. The Old City with its Wailing Wall, its narrow alleys dating back to biblical times, and its religious shrines remained a mystery to me. In fact, I had to wait thirty two years, until 1978 before I finally returned to Jerusalem, saw all these things, and many more, and touched the wall of the Temple – “The Wailing Wall” – which had been the focus of so many Jewish dreams-in-exile over two thousand years.

The main memory of our trip to Jerusalem was the bullying manner in which my prisoner was received into the military prison – being pushed through the entrance at the double. As he disappeared, I had a glimpse of other soldiers doubling around the interior square in heavy packs in the hot sunshine and to hoarsely barked commands by the military police who seemed to be in charge.

On the road back to the camp, a lorry piled high with watermelons was rattling along in front of us, and we in our truck decided to pass it. As we drew level, we stood up in our own open vehicle, and each one of us grabbed a huge, juicy watermelon from the lorry. That day the road from Jerusalem to Sarafand was strewn with pips and watermelon rind.

Ch7 Pt1 Cairo to Gaza-under the British Mandate.

                          At the “Brew-Up Canteen”, opposite the arching entrance of Cairo’s Central Station, I nibbled my last biscuit and drank my last cup of tea in Farouk’s exotic city. I crossed the big courtyard, avoiding motor cars and horse drawn cabs, then mounted the two or three steps leading to the station, my sleeping-bag and blankets in a large roll on my back, an over-stuffed kit-bag and large pack dragging behind me, a rifle slung over my shoulder. The din from the platform struck me like a wave. Everyone was in a hurry. Newspaper vendors in galabiehs and small circular woollen hats dashed hither and thither with guttural cries of “Egyptian Mail!” – “Bourse! Bourse!” Here I saw my last braided Egyptian military big bug. These fellows were done up like field marshals, although their true rank would probably have been much less exalted. I extricated myself for the last time from the clutches of tattered beggars who wished to move my kit a few yards, even a few inches, for a grossly inflated tip. And I had my last close-up glimpse of an Egyptian native woman, with her black eyes so shockingly daubed with make-up. (In later years this became a fashion in the western world and finally seemed no longer strange). I got into the train, noting with relief that it was reserved exclusively for the use of troops. So much the better. There would be less chance of losing one’s rifle or other kit through thieves. I sat down on a wooden seat, the train groaned into motion, and then we began to leave behind the palaces and the hovels of Cairo.

                          At the first stop, I bought my last bottle of the inevitable fizzy lemonade from the inevitable dirty vendor. Made drowsy by the hum of the wheels, I watched Egypt abandon me. The palm trees, the cultivated patches of ground, sparsely covered with verdure, the irrigation canals with their muddy water, the dry desert – all passed quickly by. I was in the shadow, and the breeze from the open window struck my face. A ray of sunlight hit the floor at my side.

                          I had time to think of the future. I had enjoyed my stay in Egypt. I had even made enquiries about working there, and had found the difficulties insurmountable for one of my limited qualifications. Yet perhaps this did not matter after all. Egypt was not the country for me to spend my life in. This exploitation of the poor by the rich could not last. It was based on rotten principles. I must find a new country to settle down where a man is as good as his master, where there is no class distinction and no colour bar. Where shall I find this place? I do not know. Only one thing is certain. Years of pen-pushing at the County Hall in London will never satisfy me. One day I shall marry – for life without a woman to turn to is finally only half a life. But I must find some skill to earn a decent living, for I can never again put up with the poverty known by my parents and grandparents. And then I must leave England and plant my children in a new land. Because I have weighed English society, observed it, lived with it, and I have found it wanting. It may well be that England has rejected my people in the past. But I have now finally and forever rejected England.

                          But these are things for the future. I have gained experience in Egypt, and I have enjoyed my stay. It is a credit entry in the ledger of life.

                          I dreamt thus as the train left Egypt and the sun went to bed behind the sandy horizon. Some hours after nightfall we steamed into a siding and left the train to have a snack in a huge, badly illuminated barrack where food had been prepared for us. This was El Kantara, our last stop in Egypt. Here you either got rid of your Egyptian piastres – “ackers” to the soldier – in the perpetually open Naafi, or changed them into Palestinian “mils”. A “mil” being a one thousandth part of a Palestinian pound is worth therefore about a farthing English. Back in the train again, I sat on the floor, rested my head on a wooden seat, and drifted off into an uncomfortable slumber.

                          I awoke with every limb stiff. My eyes were sticky with sleep, my face was greasy and dirty, and my head ached abominably. Outside I heard someone shout a name. Was it “Gaza”? That was my destination, our first halt after Kantara, and we were supposed to arrive there at five o’clock in the morning. It was already half past four, and I had no wish to miss my stop and finish up at Haifa, on the Mediterranean coast near the Lebanese border – I had too much kit to lug about. I asked one or two soldiers who weren’t stretched out sleeping if they knew where we were, but they had no idea. I opened the carriage door and climbed down onto the shingley railway track. There were several sidings near to us, and I could distinguish a whitish hut just opposite which might have been some sort of a stationmaster’s office. Evidently we were in a station of some sort, but where? Was it Gaza, that lonely spot where rumour had it that the British Government was going to install all those troops whom it would shortly find itself obliged to evacuate from Egypt? At the head of the train I could see a crowd of men standing in the glare from the headlights of two motor cars. What was going on? Some days ago terrorists had blown up the railway line between Cairo and Gaza. Could this be something similar? I began to make my way through the darkness in the direction of the light, but suddenly the brilliance of an electric torch exploded in my face, and I put up my hands to protect my eyes. A voice demanded: “Who are you?” The light was lowered, and I could distinguish the white straps and the red-covered cap of a man of the Corps of Military Police. Beneath his arm he held a small machine gun.

                          “I’m going to Gaza. What’s happening over there?”

                          “Nothing. Get back into your carriage.”

                          “How far is it from here to Gaza?”

                          “An hour’s journey.” 

                          “Are we going to stay here long?”

                          “I don’t know.”

                          He had planted himself in front of me. I turned my back on him and regained my carriage. The bloody Gestapo again! No wonder these military police are the outcasts of the British army. Their only object in life is to bully their comrades and put them on charges. It’s a pig’s job, and it takes a certain type of piggish mentality to carry it out.

                          On my very first leave in the army, I had run up against the military police, and thereafter kept as much out of their way as possible. I had left my parents’ flat without my pay book or my pass, for I was still very much a greenhorn. Naturally, a military policeman stopped me and asked me for my papers, which I was unable to produce. However, I told him that I had left them at home, just two steps away, and if he would come with me, I would produce them. He refused to do this, and took me to the local police station, where he put through a call to Scotland Yard, (apparently their military headquarters), telling them he was bringing me in. A military police sergeant then appeared. I explained the position to him, and eventually prevailed upon him and his understrapper to accompany me to my home so that we could end this silly business. This was done, and I produced my pass to their satisfaction. However, since a phone call had been placed to Scotland Yard they told me that they would now have to deliver my body there so that the whole matter could be tied up in red tape and filed away. So we got into their vehicle and I finished up at Scotland Yard, where I was finally turned loose.

                          I could have lost half a day’s precious leave through this, but the last laugh was against the military police because I had intended to go into the west end anyhow. In my eyes, they had merely finished up giving me a free lift. Nevertheless, this little encounter reinforced my previous opinion that there were two major qualifications necessary to be a military policeman. First of all you had to have a natural, inbuilt inclination to be a rotten bastard. Secondly, it was mandatory to have a fair amount of bone and not too much brain between the ears.

                          Turning these matters over moodily in my mind, I sat down once again on the floor of my carriage, rested my head on the hard wooden seat, and eventually fell asleep.

                          It might have been an hour and a half later when I awoke. Around me haggard wrecks which one recognised with difficulty as being human beings were picking themselves off the floor. Never mind. Somewhere “our boys” had mothers who loved them and wives who thought they were handsome! Our train still had not moved, and I staggered towards the door, teetered on the threshold, and descended to the track. It was extremely cold. To think that yesterday I had been in Egypt, where all the nights seemed to be warm. The crowd I had noticed the night before was still gathered at the front of the train, and I strolled in its direction.

                          Officers and military policemen were searching the kit of a number of Jewish soldiers – big, tough looking men with words on their shoulder flashes in the unintelligible Hebrew tongue. But the search was almost finished, and they were packing up.

                          I walked idly back to my carriage. About me wagons still rested silently in their sidings. Dawn was just breaking. The sky was half grey, half blue, and there was as yet no trace of the sun. Fields extended on either side, gloomy and indistinct. Not a sign of movement attracted the eye. Nothing was happening. The land was dead. Yet this country of Palestine was torn by internecine strife between Jew and Arab. We English were there because we had a duty to maintain some semblance of order in the land under mandate to us from the old League of Nations; but also because, when we had left Egypt, we should need some territory as a military base to protect our lines of communication with the Orient, and our Middle East oil against the menace of foreign powers, principally Russia. Naturally, we received in the process kicks in the backside from both Jews and Arabs. From the Jews, because we wouldn’t allow a rush of immigrants to enter the territory. From the Arabs, because we wouldn’t make our measures more restrictive than they were against the Jews. Never again will I believe – if I ever really have — the old propaganda from my schooldays, that wherever he goes ‘everybody loves an Englishman’. In my experience, the exact reverse is often the case, and sometimes it is the Englishman’s fault.

                          During my stay in Palestine, I noticed a marked hostility to the Jews in all ranks in the British army. I even felt it within myself, but in the interests of fairness, tried to suppress it. I was familiar and friendly with Jewish English people from my childhood days, but had never thought to try and see the world through Jewish eyes. In Palestine I now began consciously to try to do this.

Ch6 Pt7 Cairo and Maadi 1946

In Cairo itself, I remember King Farouk’s Abdin Palace, white and modern, where that gross and licentious monarch used to entertain the women who were procured for him by his underlings. An Egyptian policeman once forbade a friend and me to walk along the pavement, which ran alongside the building. As we wandered innocently along, he came dashing up to us.

“George, hey, George, pliz,” he stammered, clearly embarrassed, in a guttural, broken English,  “No walk on that side, pliz”.

Apparently everyone had to give the Abdin Palace a wide berth of at least a hundred yards. It was a measure of the trust that Farouk placed in his subjects. I remember the pictures of him when he came to the throne in the late thirties, a slim, handsome youth. Now, only ten years later, he was already a fat, balding, debauched, middle-aged man. In 1952, nobody who knew anything about Egypt could have been surprised when the revolution deposed him and sent him into exile. But Farouk had stashed away a large fortune abroad, and did not want. Yet when I was there the fellahin still thought that the sun shone out of the royal backside. 

Farouk was possessed, however, of a certain intelligence and wit. He once said, with some prescience, that in a few years there would be only five kings left in the world, the King of England, the King of Diamonds, the King of Hearts, the King of Clubs and the King of Spades. In the cinemas, it was necessary to stand up at the end of each performance while a picture of King Farouk, bemedalled and fierce-moustached, was flashed upon the screen and a gramophone played the Egyptian National Anthem. It was obligatory to do this, but our soldiers, with their customary crude humour had composed an unprintable lyric to the tune of the national anthem, which was always sung sotto voce.

It began……….

                                    “King Farouk, King Farouk,

                                    Hang his (blank blank) on a hook………”

From all reports the nightly song of malediction had little effect on the erotic antics of the mighty Farouk.

How did the English soldiers manage for girl friends in Cairo? The answer is that they didn’t. The few English service women around were reserved for officers. I suppose you could hardly blame them. So the rough and licentious soldiery either had to make do by watching the belly dancers in the cabarets and getting some sort of a vicarious satisfaction, or by visiting the red light area in Seven Sisters Street. In the brothels placed one against the other, unkempt and unattractive women touted for custom in the crudest possible terms, and from all reports the risk of venereal disease was considerable. For myself, I lived a reasonably monastic life in Cairo, but the magic of the place made up for everything.

Sometimes I used to visit the large swimming pool at Heliopolis, really one of the finest pools I had ever come across, and one of the few worthwhile amenities for the rank and file troops. I loved to swim, and spent some very happy afternoons here. Afterwards, I would return to Cairo. (The journey was made by a perilously rapid tram, stopping in the suburbs at little raised platforms like railway stations). Often I used to go to one of the many cinemas in Cairo to enjoy French films. My favourite was the Odéon, in Emad-el-Din Street, where I made the acquaintance of that excellent actress Renée Saint-Cyr, and often admired the fine dramatic talents of Raimu, whose subsequent death robbed the screen and the world of a great artist.

As a rule I went to the half past nine evening performance at the Odéon. At the conclusion of the performance, just after eleven, I used to walk along Emad-el-Din Street. One then turned right and followed Fouad-el-Awal Street for a couple of hundred yards. Ragged fellahin rubbed shoulders with British soldiers and immaculate Egyptians of the “effendi” class, who were dressed in the smartest of European clothes, but still wore the fez. Electric signs winked brightly, advertisements in French, English and Arabic glaringly proclaimed the high quality of the goods of some fashion house or jeweller. Among the popular articles of “bijouterie” on sale at this time were solid gold ladies’ wrist watches at fifty pounds apiece. This would be a small fortune for a British working man, and a sum of money unattainable to an Egyptian peasant. Yet there was a ready sale for this jewellery amongst the Egyptian upper class.

I used to turn left from Fouad-el-Awal Street into Soliman Pasha Street, also brilliantly illuminated, and would then walk down to Midan Soliman Pasha, that great roundabout which always reminded me of Piccadilly Circus. From here I struck left, into a dark turning at the end of which several native bistros were open, rickety tables scattering the street before them, and dirty, galabieh-enveloped Arabs sitting at them, smoking hookahs and drinking coffee. In this street stood the British Embassy, but at the time I used to pass by, it was always in darkness. Natives were invariably sleeping on the pavement in this street, with long handled brooms standing against the wall behind them. These were the road sweepers, the scavengers, bedraggled, without a future. A few steps away, around the corner, in Soliman Pasha Street, and again in Fouad-el-Awal Street, they were selling gold watches at fifty pounds apiece. This shocking contrast between the very rich and the incredibly poor is impressed on my memory.

At the end of the street I turned right, and went past the offices of the famous Egyptian newspaper El Ahram – The Truth. Evidently such comic titles are not confined to the European world. Walking straight on, I shortly arrived at Bab-al-Luq station, whence I took the train to Maadi and my welcome wire bed and straw paillasses in camp.

Nobody who was in Cairo in my time will forget the pickpockets. Their technique was as follows: A couple of Arabs approach the victim. One of them thrusts a photograph in front of his eyes, pretending to want to sell it to him, while the other rapidly rifles his pockets. This went on quite openly in broad daylight. If the victim carried a fountain pen, it was stolen from him by the thief passing a piece of cartridge paper under the clip and removing it in a fraction of a second without the owner so much as suspecting that anything was amiss.

Although accosted frequently by pickpockets, I lost nothing, keeping my hand always on my wallet, and taking care to let nothing show outside my pockets. However the quartermaster, an old sweat who should have known better, was not so lucky. Returning one night by train, he dozed off. A thief extracted his wallet, removed twenty pounds there from, stuffed the wallet with pieces of newspaper, and returned it to the owner’s pocket. The quartermaster did not discover his loss until the following day when, producing his wallet to pay for a purchase, he extracted there from not money, but a bunch of newspaper cuttings.

Part of Cairo was out of bounds to us, so of course, some friends and I had to pay it a visit. We had several beers in the “Taverne Francaise”, an excellent bistro near the Odéon, where a talented guitarist played during the evenings. Thus fortified we set off and reached the forbidden quarter. We ate prawns – and suffered for days afterwards with diarrhoea – in a dirty little dive where a dark skinned, part Arab girl sang in a high, quavering voice, and asked for baksheesh after each rendition. A minor incident took place when a Polish soldier accused an Arab of trying to pick the pocket of one of our fellows, but the matter passed over and the alleged “klefti wallad” scuttled away. We washed the dust from our throats with another beer, and finally left the place with razor blades, combs, pieces of elastic and other odds and ends sold to us by an itinerant vendor. We strolled along the pavement beneath a long balcony supported by thick, shadowy pillars, then entered a restaurant whose proprietor, a Greek, spoke excellent

English and French and, it seemed, perfect Arabic. Later on, when we got to chatting, he switched to German, at which he was also fluent. Indeed, he claimed to have resided in Germany for several years. He also professed to speak Italian, and while I could not try him out, as I did not understand this language, I was prepared to believe him. If one knows one Romance language, it is not too difficult to learn another. He was evidently an intelligent and able man, and I wondered how it came about that he found himself in Cairo, the proprietor of a dirty little eating house. We left after promising to try his eggs and fried chips, which he assured us, were very good.

Shortly afterwards we ran into a couple of red-capped military police, who demanded to know what we were doing in an out-of-bounds quarter. We had actually come to have a look at the notorious Seven Sisters Street, but we told them that we had got accidently lost. They were very young fellows, and we were all non-coms and each one of us was wearing campaign ribbons. We began to shoot the bull a bit, and to my surprise the redcaps weakened and finally let us go, having instructed us how to get back to more respectable parts. We all felt very cock-a-hoop about having pulled the wool over the eyes of the “Gestapo”, and walked towards Bab-al-Luq railway station rejoicing.

I shall not quickly forget the “Cinés Jardin” of Cairo. It is extremely hot in summer in Cairo, and hardly ever rains. Hence the popularity at that time of the “Garden Cinemas”. One sits in a wickerwork chair in the open and enjoys the performance while the stars twinkle overhead in the clear, purple sky. Everything is very clean, invariably there is a bar behind the auditorium where one can obtain lemonade, beer or cigarettes, and during the interval the enclosure is illuminated by lamps hidden in the walls, within alcoves, or behind ferns. A warm breeze provides natural air conditioning, and usually the Garden Cinema is far enough away from the main street or sufficiently hemmed in by walls for the audience to be protected from the noise of traffic.

This was something to be taken into account, for never in my life had I lived in a city where the trams screeched so much or where motorists sounded their horns so much as in Cairo. Away from all bother, lounging like an effendi in a basket chair in a Garden Cinema, watching a French film, smoking a cigarette, gazing at the stars and letting my thoughts wander, I spent some of my happiest evenings.

Of course, such modern developments as drive-in cinemas were unknown in those days. Thus the Garden Cinema was something quite new and completely adapted to the Egyptian climate and way of life.

The palatial dance halls – a feature at that time of English town life – did not exist in Cairo. For the military there was the Naafi Empire Club where, at the risk of being injured in the crush, and provided you could find a partner, you could wriggle about for an evening in a very restricted area. There was also the YMCA where one could shake a wicked leg every Tuesday. And at the Alamein Club, on the other side of the Nile, (reached by crossing a great white, well illuminated bridge which reminded me of Waterloo Bridge across the Thames, except that it was longer), dancing went on twice weekly by starlight.

These facilities were not enough for thousands of lonely soldiers. So for those who found themselves crowded out, which was the majority, there were the cabarets. These cabarets were simply dives where beer and other beverages were sold, and where young Arab girls came to sit on the knees of the soldiers who were almost the only customers. There was always an orchestra, a small wooden square which masqueraded as a dance floor, and galabieh-clad Egyptian or Sudanese waiters running busily hither and thither. Some cabarets were filthy and the hostesses – the notices plastered on the walls referred to them as “artistes” – were most unappetising. Yet I saw no evidence of prostitution, and when I made enquiries was told that it was forbidden, otherwise the clubs would be placed “out of bounds” to military personnel and would go broke overnight.

On the other hand, cabarets existed where the girls dressed in elegant evening gowns, where discreetly lit tables were covered with clean, white cloths, and one could enjoy an excellent meal, with a quiet glass of beer afterwards, while listening to a reasonably good orchestra.

Yet nothing comes free in this world. And whether they were looking beautiful in charmingly cut evening gowns or shocking with uncombed hair and dirty faces, the cabaret girls all demanded the same thing for sitting at a customer’s table. This was that he buy them glass after glass of coloured water at an inflated price. The hostesses earned their commission thus, and the proprietor made a very handsome profit.

At about half past ten the dancing finished and a “spectacle” took place. In the better class cabaret there was usually a juggler, perhaps a conjurer, possibly acrobats. But in all cabarets the spectacle ended with the same climax. A voluptuous, very scantily clad young lady would perform what the French call “la danse du ventre”, which we translate literally as “belly dance”. The orchestra would play a barbarous tune, slowly reaching a wild crescendo, with the audience clapping faster and faster in time with the gyrations of the dancer. Let me say that to be a good belly dancer requires a high degree of practice and skill, and that in my view any man must applaud skill, and any man who does not appreciate the sight of a beautiful woman must have something wrong with him. Thus, we all enjoyed the belly dancers of Cairo.

Before leaving these few memories of Egypt and Cairo, I must mention very quickly Shepheard’s Hotel. Shepheard’s was famous in the “belle époque” of British colonialism because all the upper crust used to stay there. Years afterwards it was set on fire, and whether it was ever reinstated I do not know, nor do I particularly care. But when I was in Cairo, I passed Shepheard’s Hotel many times. Of course, I never went inside, for Shepheard’s Hotel was reserved exclusively for commissioned officers. If you had a civilian suit and plenty of arrogance, you might get past the suspicious porters. But which ranker in those days of shortages, high prices, low wages, and clothes rationing ever had a spare civilian suit to carry around? So we private soldiers were excluded from the ranks of the “gentlemen”, and I only ever saw “Shepheard’s” from the outside. At the front of the hotel there was an elevated terrace, open to the warm breeze, and covered with tables, so that the diners and partakers of apéritifs could look down upon the passing hoi polloi. Behind the terrace the famous hotel reared up like a monument. By a coincidence it looked out to the insalubrious quarter which was “out of bounds” to us during our stay in Cairo. For all its pretensions, “Shepheard’s” still could not divorce itself entirely from the common herd of humanity.

English class distinction, raised to the status of a religious shibboleth in the army, annoyed me more than anything else. The situation at Shepheard’s Hotel was repeated at the “Maadi Club”, in the suburbs where our camp stood. The Maadi Club admitted only officers to its precincts, and the hob nailed boots of the private soldiers whose privilege it is to do the dirty work, fight wars, and die for their betters, never crossed the sacred threshold. An exception, however, was made on Saturdays for a short period, when private soldiers might use the Club’s swimming pool. Few cared to avail themselves of such condescending generosity, and certainly not I. In any case, we later succeeded in getting a swimming pool of our own opened. I am sure that our lowly physiques would never have stood up to the spiritually refined atmosphere of the Maadi Club; and that after breathing its rarefied air for a few moments, we should have choked.

A personal crisis now supervened for me, which was largely responsible for my leaving Egypt.

My former girl friend, who had become engaged to a merchant seaman just before we had jumped over Arnhem, had subsequently broken her engagement. When I returned to England after the conclusion of the war with Germany, we picked up our old association. However, she had joined ENSA, the body responsible for organising stage shows for the troops, and she was slated to go to Ceylon. She wrote a letter from Ceylon to me in Egypt telling me that she had plighted her troth to a novelette-writer cum scriptwriter. I only ever saw one of his scripts on an American TV programme many years later, and it was lousy. But that is by the way. I was upset to receive her letter, but this was the second time she had given me my congé. It became clear even to my obtuse mind that I was not the man for her. I also began to suspect that she might never have been the girl for me.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the matter, it was a situation which I had no alternative but to accept. At Maadi they were trying to make me an instructor in radio sets, Morse code and signals procedure. I had but a few months to go in the army, and in my present unsettled state, the last thing I felt like doing was absorbing details of unfamiliar wireless sets, then regurgitating them to open-mouthed students.

I decided to see the Colonel and ask him to send me to join the Sixth Airborne Division in what was then known as Palestine, under the British Mandate. Today, of course, it is the modern Republic of Israel. The Colonel agreed, but reduced me to the ranks. I packed my kit one afternoon and climbed into an army truck.

In a cloud of dust the little white villas of Maadi disappeared behind me forever. Then we proceeded to burn up the black macadamised road that runs alongside the Nile to Cairo. There I had to catch a train to Gaza, beyond the Sinai desert, in British Mandated Palestine.

Ch6 Pt6 Saqqara, Apis, and the Step pyramid.

We could not idle at Memphis for very long. Five minutes to take snaps, said our guide. The circle of fellahin, which he had hitherto kept at a respectful distance by spitting out occasional venomous injunctions in Arabic, now closed about us. Packets of snapshots? Ten piastres each. Do you want this piece of old money? Very valuable. I will sell it to you for five piastres. Baksheesh, effendi?

“Yallah! Ana muskid, enta arif? Ana mafish feloos.” Fluent Arabic in their ears, no doubt, but the limit of our vocabulary in that language. The translation? – Buzz off. I’m a poor man, understand? I have no money.” It makes no difference to our fellahin friends. They press around us until we finally take refuge in the waiting taxis.

We were going to Saqqara, a mile or two distant. It was the “boneyard” of Memphis, our guide informed us, and it took a while for me to grasp the fact that he meant “cemetery”. Evidently the United States troops who had found their way to Cairo during the war had been giving our dragoman lessons in American English. Our heavily laden taxis shot off in a cloud of dust, quickly reached the desert, and began to climb a short, steep slope at the top of which was a crudely printed notice nailed to a pole read: “Step Pyramid”.

We pulled up outside a barrack-like hut, built seemingly without any previously formulated design, and now in the process of falling apart. Only the fortuitous juxtaposition of its beams and stones kept it upright. This unlikely residence had sheltered Mariette Pasha against the sandy winds of the desert and against the heat of the Egyptian sun. This illustrious Frenchman, in the middle of the nineteen century, had discovered many tombs in the neighbourhood, and had taken away much baksheesh at the end of his sojourn. Our guide gave as much emphasis to Mariette Pasha as he did to the ruins themselves. He was obviously proud of the fact that in those days the Egyptians gave baksheesh away instead of asking for it.

A great pyramid dominated Mariette Pasha’s house, (now, oh shameful degradation, a sort of canteen where one purchased ginger beer and lemon pop!) This was the “Step Pyramid”, the sides not having a regular slope like the newer edifices at Giza, but being built up step-fashion. It is built up in six steps, or stages, unequal in height. The total height is 204 feet, with the base measuring 411 feet by 358 feet. According to our guide this Step Pyramid dates from 3000 B.C. and is the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It is completely solid – not with passages running through it like the others – for the Egyptians had not yet perfected the art of pyramid building, and the burial chamber had been excavated under the monument. Unfortunately it had been declared dangerous, and visitors were forbidden to enter it.

We turned towards the desert, and followed our guide between the dunes of sand. Through the shimmering heat haze which rose from the yellow, burning desert, the Pyramids of Giza extended in the distance in a long, straight line. It was very hot. I was sweating freely. My rough khaki shirt became soaked with perspiration and I regretted not having put on shorts.        

Where were we going? Our guide had omitted to tell us. A few of our number gave way to importunate Arabs who were following us with little donkeys, and paid several piastres to straddle these animals. No sooner had they done so, however, than we came upon a huge underground tomb, from which the sand has been cleared away on one side, enabling a ramp to be driven downwards. These excavations were the work of our guide’s hero, Mariette Pasha, and led to the tomb of Ti, a builder and powerful statesman in the time of Rameses II.           

We entered the tomb, bending ourselves double in order to pass through a low passage, and came into the room where Ti had found his last resting place. The walls were covered with drawings and carvings of ancient Egyptian life. These were done in the standard manner, the head always being shown in profile, with no attempt made to give the illusion of perspective. In one panel, slaves – men and women – were working at their everyday tasks for their master Ti. On another, they were bringing offerings to him, to his wife and to his son. On the wall, a door had been represented – a false door – in order that Ti’s spirit might leave the chamber when it desired. And in a small neighbouring room the people who had buried Ti had placed a statuette of their lord for every day of the year, wherein his spirit could abide whenever it wanted. At the time of our visit, only one of these effigies was left, the others having been removed to museums.

Near Ti’s chamber were the chambers of his wife and son, whose walls – it was not possible to go inside them – were also covered with drawings representing work and sacrifices, and with rows of hieroglyphic writing. There was also the representation of a false door, allowing the spirit to leave and re-enter at will.

We ascended the cement slope leading to the open, and soon the dazzling sand was again under our feet. The dragoman strode along in front, his blue galabieh swelling like a wind-filled sail, and we followed him obediently.

Shortly we came upon another concrete path leading, like the entrance to the tomb of Ti, into the bowels of the earth. This was the tomb of the sacred bulls of Memphis, and at the bottom of the slope we waited for a while until our eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, and an Arab, who acted as watchman, had lit several oil lamps. All these tombs had been electrically lit before the war, the guide explained. Even the pyramids were wired for it. However, war in the desert and the close proximity of Rommel’s troops had brought an end to it, and although peace had come, the current had not yet been restored.

Lifting our oil lamp above our heads, we see that we are in a great, high passage. In fact, with so little illumination, it is not possible to distinguish the roof. The ground beneath our feet is sandy, and we shuffle along in almost total silence. The walls of this tunnel are pitted at intervals with huge recesses, each one of which contains an immense granite sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus once held the mummified carcass of an Apis bull, which in a bygone age the inhabitants of Memphis had worshipped. A small golden statue of the dead animal into which its spirit could retire was also placed in the sarcophagus.

The sides of the sarcophagi were covered in hieroglyphics praising the fine qualities of the defunct sacred bulls, and there was also in each case a representation of a door so that the spirit could leave and re-enter at will. The ancient Egyptians worshipped only one bull at a time, its sarcophagus being prepared for it during the duration of its life, which lasted on an average, about twenty five years. If the bull died before its sarcophagus was appropriately inscribed, the inscription nevertheless ceased, and its coffin took its place unfinished with the others already in the tomb. Thus, the tunnel and its cavities were not constructed all at once, but piecemeal, as and when needed. It is calculated that the ancient Egyptians took five hundred years to dig this tomb out of the solid rock, lengthening it a little to accommodate each sacred bull as it died. One stands amazed at the enormous trouble taken to bury an animal. Yet even today human beings pay special allegiance to certain animals. One thinks of the American eagle, the British lion, the Russian bear, the Australian emu and kangaroo, and the goat – the mascot of a crack English Guards regiment and given the honorary rank of corporal. The more it changes, the more it is the same thing, and we are not really so far removed from the citizens of Memphis, those mysterious people who lived more than four millennia before Christ.

Then, of course, one asks oneself what link there is between this virile race and the tattered inhabitants of modern day Egypt. What part did our guide’s ancestors play in building these fantastic tombs? These questions can only be pure speculation. Some encyclopaedias show mummies and pictures suggesting a people with almost European features. We shall never really know.

At the end of the main tunnel there was a short opening big enough to admit a man’s body which robbers had made in their search for fresh booty. But they had been out of luck, for the tunnel ends here. It is a tunnel which, after five hundred years of toil, finishes nowhere. Like the rest of us, these people had been playing with pebbles on the beach while waiting for eternity.

We retrace our steps, and at the entrance our guide stopped us to explain one more point.  

“The slope which leads to the surface was constructed by Mariette Pasha,” he explains. “But this is not the real entrance. The original entrance to this tomb was a huge hole made up there, high above us in the roof, where the floor of the desert lies. So the questions is, how did the ancient Egyptians get those huge tremendously heavy granite coffins all the way down here to this underground catacomb? They did it by completely filling up this part of the tunnel with sand – right to the very top. They then manhandled the sarcophagus from the desert above on to the sand, which filled up the hole, after which they commenced to shovel the sand out. When the sarcophagus had at length descended to the tunnel floor, where we are standing, they put wooden rollers under it and pushed it away to its niche”.

We return to Mariette Pasha’s house, drink a bottle of fizzy lemonade, known in these parts as “gazoosa”, and pack ourselves once more into our taxis. Then the bouncing, dusty journey back to Cairo begins. On the way we pass Arab men and women working patiently by the sides of irrigation canals, which bring water to the desert. The trees which grow alongside these canals are heavy with red blossoms and give shade to the people who scratch a living from this sandy soil where fields of corn grew before the desert was unleashed, and where once the kings of ancient Egypt reigned.

Despite the squalor of the poor, benighted fellahin, pleasure predominates when I think back on my stay in Egypt. I had always wanted to travel abroad, and this was my first protracted stay in a foreign country. It was also the end of an era of British colonialism, which made it doubly interesting.

The day was coming when I should have to leave Egypt. Therefore I tried in the diary I kept at the time to pass things in review.  I recorded a general impression of the fabulous city of Cairo and the way things were with me – a young and impressionable fellow coming to the end of a protracted stint of enforced military service. 

I always liked Maadi, that pretty, mostly European settlement on the banks of the Nile, just outside Cairo. The streets of Maadi were planted with trees whose branches were laden with red, sweetly smelling blossoms. One day, when I return, I shall identify the species. Today, I can no longer remember clearly exactly how they looked. But Maadi always seemed to be bathed in sunlight. The people of Maadi were upper middle class, conscious of their intellectual and social superiority, and therefore had little to do with the rough soldiery to whom we belonged. For a few weeks I used to visit a school teacher called Phillippa……..and her other name escapes me…….who was also entertaining a captain from the “Signals” camp. Needless to say, we never visited Phil on the same night. There was nothing between us. Phil was merely being kind to an English soldier who was far away from home. She was approaching forty, unmarried, although not unattractive, and had adopted a daughter, who was away somewhere at college.

I was grateful to Phil for her kindness, but there was always a constraint between us. She had a certain arrogant self-assurance that I inwardly resented. It was possibly because, coming from the east end of London as I did, and being conditioned to the English class system, I suffered from a fairly large inferiority complex. I knew some French people in Maadi, before whom, pleasant as they were, I felt the same constraints.

The fellah and the effendi………

As I grew older I would develop my own secret intellectual arrogance for those who thought that they knew everything, although in reality they had never left school. And the real wisdom, of course, is the realisation that it all behoves any man to look down on another, for we are all mortal, and during our short stay on earth we all have something to contribute to the Common Weal.

Ch6 Pt5 Pyramids and Ramses 11.

It is curious how quickly time passes. During my four months on the outskirts of Cairo, I succeeded in visiting only two spots of real interest. The chief reason for this was, of course, the fact that more often than not I was broke. I drew only a pound a week. And that doesn’t take one very far in a place where things were as expensive for Europeans as we found them in Cairo. The other reason was “the exigencies of the service”. In the army overseas you cannot always leave camp when you want. Also, when the political situation is a bit dicey, you cannot always go where you want. Other places are always “out of bounds” to private soldiers, their rarefied atmosphere being reserved exclusively for commissioned officers.  

However, we decided one day to visit the Pyramids and travelled into Cairo. In Fouad Street, we waited for the necessary tram. An Arab tout came along and told us that the bridge over the Nile had fallen down and we would therefore do better to take a taxi, which he would procure for us. We chose to treat this statement as a slight exaggeration, and sure enough, in a few minutes our tram came swaying towards us. It was full to overflowing with Arabs clinging to its sides like obstinate flies. Somehow or other we managed to find ourselves places on the running board, and the vehicle set off again at a hair-raising pace, screeching and swaying to such an extent that I was really afraid that it would turn turtle. We crossed the wide expanse of the Nile, spanned by a magnificent modern bridge. When the city was illuminated at night, the breathtaking sweep of the river at this point reminded me of the curve of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars, where I had visited so often as a boy. On the other side of the Nile we continued to the outskirts of Cairo, and changed trams. In this new transport, we succeeded in finding ourselves places on the wooden seats, and it was then a swaying, hilarious journey through the gimcrack, jerry-built outer suburbs. We careered down a hill at full tilt, roared underneath a huge modern cement bridge, then climbed a slope and flew straight as an arrow to the tram terminus. Here we got out, rather white-faced and with small globules of sweat pearling our foreheads.

On the left, Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza reared itself into the sky. We approached it by a curving road, passing a restaurant, which looked as if it was falling to pieces and from which a radio blared forth most inappropriately the latest American jive number to hit the record charts. Then we found ourselves at the foot of this fantastic Pyramid, of which each stone was at least half the height of a man. We abandoned our original intention of climbing the Pyramid – it would have been a considerable task, and would have had time for nothing else. Instead we clambered up a few stones and entered the interior. 

We followed a curving passage, scaled a narrow wooden staircase, and gazed with wonder at the immense slope constructed of huge blocks of stone by which the sarcophagus had been raised into the heart of the Pyramid. We came at last to the large, empty “King’s Chamber” where the mortal remains of King Khufu or Cheops had once rested. On the walls were typically Egyptian representations of the various activities of the king and hieroglyphic writing describing his activities and triumphs. We then descended to the somewhat smaller “Queen’s Chamber”. The heat was considerable inside the pyramid, and the enormous blocks of stone on all sides, much larger than those outside, took on a menacing aspect. Supposing it all collapsed? We should be squashed like mud crabs under the heel of a giant.

This Great Pyramid, the largest of all the pyramids was truly an amazing construction. The height of the pyramid was 481 feet, and the base covered an area of 13 acres. It is said that if it were possible to put St. Peter’s Church in Rome inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, it would occupy only half the ground area. There is apparently a core of local stone within the Pyramid which it is not possible to see, but it has been estimated that the core of local stone and the original outer facing of limestone, (this latter facing now long since gone), were composed of 2,300,000 separate blocks weighing from 2½ to 15 tons each. In the face of such statistics, and having been inside this carefully built edifice which stands up to any test of modern engineering principles, the mind boggles. These tombs were built between approximately 2900 and 2750 B.C. The methods of construction must have been without the benefit of machinery such as we use today. The labour, toil, cruelty and heartbreak involved in building these monuments almost defy imagination.

From the “Queen’s Chamber” we followed a winding, sandy tunnel, and suddenly found ourselves standing in the open air, blinking in the sunlight. It was good to leave behind that tremendously impressive but claustrophobic interior. We jumped from stone to stone until we reached the flat desert sand. We circled the pyramid, marvelling at the fact that almost all of those more than two million stones, all of them large, some positively huge, had had to be cut and brought here from many miles away. A hundred thousand slaves, our guide had told us, had worked for twenty years to raise this edifice, this folly, this wonder of the world. Like a subliminal picture flashed on a screen, I saw in a split second my eight months of misery as a forced labourer in Germany, and compared that with the incredibly harsh life of a slave in Ancient Egypt working for twenty years in much harsher conditions to build this mausoleum for a Pharaoh’s corpse.

To our right another pyramid lifted itself against the blue, cloudless sky. Then it was a succession of pyramids, extending into the yellow, burning desert.

We followed the sandy path separating the two pyramids in our immediate vicinity. These huge monuments towering beside us were pitiful tokens of man’s endless search for some sort of immortality. Yet the suffering of the unwilling builders remains. Perhaps the pyramids are monuments not so much to those mighty Pharaohs of old, as to their workmen, without whose labour these wonders of the world would never have existed.

Eventually, on our left, in a sandy hollow, we sighted the Great Sphinx. The view of the back was disappointing – a mass of badly carved stone. And we saw as we came nearer that the paws had been restored with large and inappropriate bricks. But as we looked at the face of the Sphinx we understood why it had become famous.

For the blind eyes, the strong nose – strong despite the erosion of centuries and the vandalism of Napoleon’s troops nearly a hundred and fifty years before – and the thick lips, curved in an enigmatic, disdainful, merciless smile, expressed a supreme pride and an utter cruelty. The ghosts of a far-off race, at once civilised and savage, defied the passage of time, and still haunted the dry, yellow desert. One sensed a presence hostile to every being who came to profane these sacred places.

We gazed for the last time at the face of the Sphinx, then retraced our steps, reached the highway, and walked silently down to the tram stop. The coaches jerked into motion. Suddenly, the spell that had been cast over us was broken. Native vendors climbed in en route with baskets of oranges and peanuts. We sang boisterously, to the considerable amusement of our Egyptian fellow-passengers, who had no difficulty in understanding certain gestures and onomatopoeic sounds that accompanied our rather ribald repertoire. Even the child beggars, who climbed aboard, displaying their defects and amputations for baksheesh, could not dampen our spirits. Thus it was a gay, pitching, swaying journey into Cairo, illuminated now with neon signs, and very beautiful in the twilight.

A few days before my departure from Cairo, I decided, finding myself in the YMCA canteen in Soliman Pasha Street with two pounds in my pocket and time on my hands, to undertake an excursion. This was a tour to Memphis, capital of Ancient Egypt, and to Saqqara, which had once served the town as a cemetery. I allowed myself to be relieved of forty five precious piastres, and the following Sunday morning, when the tour was to take place, presented myself at the canteen.

When all the party was assembled, we were ushered through the back door into an alley, where we piled into waiting taxis. In ours there were eight people. Two passengers were squashed in the front seat with the driver. (This was a dirty, unshaven, cross-eyed man with a small circular woollen cap on his head). There were two more people on the folding seats behind him, and three others crushed into the bench seat at the back. However, nobody minded. We were looking forward to an interesting trip to Memphis and Saqqara. The director of the trip was a stout, smiling Arab, who spoke English extremely well, and always had a joke on his lips. He was the prototype, in fact, of a whole generation of post-war tourist guides whom we were to know when the world had recovered from the ravages of war, and we all entered better times. Our guide was dressed in a blue, excellently tailored galabieh, which set him aside from others. He went to considerable length to explain to us with obvious pride that this was the “national dress”. He was employed by the YMCA, and warned us not to give any tips – he would pay for everything. This was a real turn-up for the books, and we received the news with delight.

On leaving, we crossed the Nile, and passed the Zoological Gardens. Incidentally, the latter were so clean that one was driven to wonder whether the government cared more about the welfare of the caged animals than that of the beggars who swarmed the streets. We followed dusty tracks alongside sluggish canals, passed irrigation wheels whose design had not changed in five thousand years. We also made several stops for inspection by Egyptian police in white trousers and jackets, with white topees crowning their dark heads.                       

The track became more primitive. We lurched through dusty, dirty villages where Arab shops, devoid of windows, opened directly and blindly upon narrow streets. At every yard we were bounced and jostled as the car wheels slithered over potholes. In these villages, I thought, a European would not walk alone at night. 

We came to Memphis, which consisted of a few clumps of palm trees on the edge of the desert. Five thousand years ago, Memphis was the greatest city in Egypt, and the Pharaohs ruled from here. Now it is nothing, an insignificant village twenty miles up the River Nile from Cairo. As the taxis discharged their occupants, we were at once surrounded by Arabs, who either tried to sell us photographs or pieces of ancient “money” covered in verdegris and “guaranteed genuine.” Failing that, they simply held out their hands for baksheesh.

First we were shown an immense statue of the king Rameses II lying horizontally on the ground because the legs had been broken. After passing this enormous statue, carved from a single block of stone, our guide led us to a small alabaster sphinx, with the King’s head, the ceremonial false beard, and a lion’s body to represent the strength and power of the king. The sphinx had been discovered lying on its side in the Nile, where it must have remained for many years, even centuries, for the flowing waters had completely spoilt the side against which they had washed. A few goats were grazing on the poor, dry grass in the hollow around the impassive sphinx.

Then we were led to a few stones from which time had erased every inscription. They were all that was left of a great temple that had stood here centuries ago. All the other remains had been stolen by Arabs to build houses, for stones were scarce in this vicinity and had to be brought from several miles away.

The mighty king, Rameses II, back in Egypt after a military campaign to extend the boundaries of his empire, and on his way to Luxor, had had two statues made of himself, each one of which weighed eighty tons and stood upright four thousand odd years ago at the entrance to the temple. Thus spoke our Arab guide, standing legs astride, arms akimbo, his cane held lightly in a brown hand. The blue galabieh which enveloped his stout body moved in the wind, outlining his legs and belly. The tassle dangled from the red fez perched on his closely cropped head. But we listened entranced to his guttural voice speaking an obviously alien language, for he was recreating for us the time when people on this very spot, went about their business in an historic and famous city under the rule of a mighty king of civilised, barbaric Ancient Egypt. We stood on a spot where ghosts of the past were present.

The second statue of the king was lying beneath the protection of a roof of corrugated iron. The legs of this statue were also broken off, but it was the better example of the two. We clambered on to a small platform erected around it, the better to examine the carving. As on all these statues, everything had been simplified. There had been no attempt to show every muscle on the torso or the limbs. Yet the impression given was one of great strength, life and immediacy. The face was so carefully modelled that it seemed to have an almost photographic exactness. What tremendous labour to carve such a statue from a single block of stone. And what tremendous labour to move it down the Nile on rafts and then transfer it across land to Memphis.

Ch6 Pt4 Maadi seen through Jim’s letter.

                          After three weeks at Heliopolis, Mack the Glaswegian and I were sent to a camp some way outside Maadi, a little European suburb on the other side of Cairo. The following is the text of a letter I sent to a friend just after our transfer to Maadi:

Dear George,

                          Casting an eye through the little notebook which is my record of letters received and sent, I suddenly realise that for more than a fortnight I haven’t sent you any news of Cairo, city of clean, well-dressed ‘effendim’, whom one would take for Londoners but for their darker complexions, and of filthily clad ‘fellahin’. City of shining, luxurious motor cars, and of screeching, wooden seated trams, crammed with those same clean-as-can-be gentlemen, and with tattered Arabs who shave once a week, wash once a quarter, and change their clothes once a year.

                          Since there is no actual news to send you, the idea occurs to me to describe to you the journey from our camp to Cairo. Our camp is a sandy area dotted with wooden huts. Above us is a vaulted roof of blue sky scattered with white, furry clouds. Where the corrugated iron roofs of our barrack huts touch the wooden walls, one finds nests of chirruping birds. The chatter of these feathered friends awakes us in the morning, and with it is intermingled the quavering, oriental chant of a sunburned young man as he goes happily about his daily chores intoning an Arab love song. This young man is a seeker after baksheesh by the name of Abdul, who comes every day to sweep up the floor.       

                          Let’s imagine that we are leaving the camp. Before reaching the guardroom, you see on the right a long, stone building. This is the dining hall, and outside sits an Arab selling tiny specimens of fruit whose high quality he advertises by yelling continuously and at the top of his voice: “Gigantic bananas!” Near him there is a young lad who sells newspapers, and who, if you give him a note to change, always gives you back the wrong money. But nobody ever gets angry. You have only to ask him for the missing ‘ackers’ and he will produce them for you with a friendly smile.  

                          “We carry straight on past the dining hall, and arrive at the guard room. This is an imposing building, even though it consists of only one storey. The brick wall is brilliantly whitewashed, and at the door stands the soldier on duty who, at first sight, also seems to be brilliantly whitewashed. However closer inspection restores the reality, and you observe that the illusion is caused by the whiteness of the guard’s webbing, revolver holster and gaiters, which have been blancoed assiduously to a glaring snowball hue.

                          The guard room is the epitome of British army bullshit which, as has so often been observed, will frequently baffle brains. And so it turns out. For completely unknown to the Colonel-in-Charge and the other big brass who think they run the show, Arab workers in the camp are very much impressed by the efficiency of the guard room personnel who lift the boom gate to allow them to come to work each day.     

So much so that they make presents to the guard for lifting the gate. These may be by way of free passes to the picture show, extra sugar for the tea, a gift of a hand of gigantic bananas, or even the introduction on special occasions of an attractive young Egyptian lady into this all-male preserve.

                          How wonderful it is to give baksheesh, for it benefits him who gives, as much as it benefits him who receives.

                          The guard raises the wooden beam, painted black and white and gleaming in the sunlight. We stroll under the barrier with a nonchalant acknowledgement. Then we are free – free of the camp, on our way to Cairo, and provided we keep out of the way of the redcapped military police, (locally known as ‘The Gestapo’), to all intents and purposes free for a few glorious hours of the army.

                          We walk along a dusty road, cross a railway track, and find ourselves in the village of Maadi. Somebody told me when we first came here that the syllable ‘aa’ of this word was identical in sound to the braying of an ass. I heard one such animal in good voice in Cairo the other afternoon, and the sound is indeed exactly the same. When he and I were discussing this small point, a teacher of languages remarked that Arabic was a tongue of animals – of camels and of donkeys. The French population write – and say –  ‘Méadi’, which is nearer to the correct pronunciation than the English loosely drawled ‘Mahdi’.

                          Maadi is made up of very clean villas, and its inhabitants are split up more or less equally into English, French and Egyptians. The spick and span villas remind one of the houses that fairly wealthy people in any European country are likely to possess. But one feels an inexplicable difference. Perhaps it is the fact that nearly all the roofs are flat, or that the houses are generally of white cement. Perhaps, again, it is that they nearly all have wooden shutters, French fashion. The dazzlingly bright sun gives them an indefinably different appearance, like the black and white pictures – a little too black and a little too white for reality – that one sees on the cinema screen.

                          After about half a mile, the straight road reaches the railway station, a cement platform covered with sand. Arabs abound, several of them competing to clean the shoes of whomever approaches, asking three or four piastres at first, but lowering their prices even to half a piastre in their haste to do trade before the train arrives. Mixed in this strange crowd, several Europeans in civilian dress stand elegantly.

                          At the ticket office, one must always buy a first class ticket from the clerk who is dressed in a khaki drill uniform and a red fez. The carriage next to the engine is first class; its seats are leather covered. The other three coaches have wooden seats, and the characters travelling therein can hardly be called clean. Mostly they are a poor, ragged, filthy, pitiable lot.

                          It’s a cosmopolitan crowd that the train pulls towards Cairo. You see bare-footed natives wearing the long robe – generally white – known as the ‘galabieh,’ and the red fez, or sometimes a small circular cap, upon their heads. A few wear down-at-heel shoes. Even those Egyptians who dress European fashion and seem to have copied our every garment still wear their country’s fez. It is the fez which is victorious here, the only garment, so to speak, which holds out against the advance of the occident. I have seen a few Europeans with trilby hats, many with light straw hats, but the bowler, heaven be praised, is conspicuous by its complete absence.

                          The poorer native women, that is, the womenfolk of the fellahin, always go bare foot, and are swathed in a kind of black all-enveloping robe. Generally they are veiled to the eyes, but despite this, one can as a rule gain an impression of their faces. Notwithstanding the privacy imposed by their mode of dress, it is not uncommon to see one of these women sit down on a public bench and pull out a breast to feed her young child, in full view of anyone who may be passing. The apparent inconsistency is no doubt due to our residual Anglo-Saxon prudery.

                          The wives and daughters of the richer Europeanised Egyptians dress as we do, and very often in the height of western fashion. Are they attractive? They most certainly are, may Allah forgive me, and when I observe them from afar, I often feel the hot blood of youth boil madly in my veins. Yes, the human race is indeed one: a maid is always a maid, wherever one finds her, and quite evidently a man is always a man.

                          The train creaks into movement and leaves Maadi. We rattle across yellow, sun-beaten desert. Often a band of green, cultivated fields follows the railway track on either side. A warm breeze enters through the open windows; the train whistle sounds joyfully and almost continuously. Voices discuss in Arabic, French, English, Greek, Italian – even in Polish, for we have many Polish soldiers stationed in the neighbourhood of Cairo. One hears every possible language. A fuzzy-haired Melanesian from the outermost Pacific island group would not feel out of place in Cairo’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.

                          We begin to pass tumbledown hovels which are almost visibly collapsing and crumbling away, but which shelter innumerable Arab families. Then we come to the modern little railway station of Bab-el-Luq, which is the terminus of this line. We leave the train and give our ticket to the blue-uniformed official who stands at the exit gate, and whose fez, perched jauntily on his head, leaves the tassle to dangle and dance above shining black eyes. We decline to buy from an Arab lad a paper-backed copy of “Snappy Stories”, the cover of which is embellished by the picture of a nearly naked lady with a wickedly seductive smile. We descend a few steps, and we are in the street. The sun drenches the pavement in warmth and golden light. Dark-skinned urchins run hither and thither. The drivers of ultra modern American taxis seek us as fares. Coachmen from horse-drawn gharries call to us. ‘Hey, Jock! Effendi! Take you to the YMCA? Very cheap!’

                          We carry on straight along this street of native stalls and shops. To the left is an Arab bistro with people inside drinking at dirty tables and smoking hookahs they have rented. On the wall, behind the counter, are hung several more of these ‘hubbly bubbly’ pipes for the delectation of anyone who cares to pay a piastre or two. This bistro has always attracted my attention, for the proprietor’s radio, perched above one corner of the counter, ceaselessly screams out Arab songs, sung by a sobbing, whining voice, which breaks off at the oddest moments, apparently in mid-phrase, and rises above the chatter and shouting of the crowd.                                                    

                          At the end of this street one finds the tramway and the tall buildings of modern Cairo. Near here also is a dark alley where I was accosted the other evening by half a dozen pickpockets, who seemed to appear from nowhere. There was something of a running fight, but I managed to reach a well-lit boulevard before things became desperate and without losing any money.”

Jim

Ch6 Pt3 Egypt 1946 first impressions.

The next morning, those of us who can keep any food down are queuing along the upper deck, waiting our turn to descend to the mess deck for breakfast.  Here we learn that one of our three engines is useless, and that one of the screws has broken during the pitching and tossing of the night.

After breakfast I go up on deck again and see to the starboard a mountainous island rearing itself from the sea, an island encircled by cloud, gloomy and menacing. Corsica! The island of Prosper Mérimée and of Guy de Maupassant who wrote such bloodthirsty tales about Corsican vendettas; the home of that military and administrative genius and scourge of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte; and of that “other Corsican”, the singer Tino Rossi. No doubt Corsica is a beautiful island, but today, looming and misty, it has an air of menace.

Towards midday the sea began to get extremely rough again, and become more or less calm only at twilight on the third day, when we were sailing between the green, hilly coast of Italy and the island of Sicily. Here, in nineteen forty-three, the allies had successfully completed the invasion of Sicily from North Africa. Then they and the Germans gazed at each other from opposite sides of the narrow Straits of Messina, poised ready to spring at each other’s throats.

Some members of the ship’s crew told us that this was the roughest crossing of the “Med” they had ever known, and we could quite believe them. Nevertheless, we had periods of relative calm. At these times, it was good to promenade the deck and look at the immense expanse of sea, really blue now, whose billowing, white-crowned waves leapt and pranced as far as the eye could reach. Sometimes, when the sun shone and the skies were swept clear of clouds, it was most pleasant to lean on the handrail and look at the turbulent, foaming water cut and flung aside without mercy by the bow of our ship. I shall always remember one night when I had climbed on deck to get a breath of fresh air. It was pitch black. The sea and the sky were fused together in one single mass of darkness. Only the beat of water against the iron body of the ship could be heard. A few squares of light, escaping from the cabin windows illuminated, from time to time, foaming whirlpools, or white, threatening waves. Then, from the other end of the deck, men began to sing. Others joined in. And suddenly it was a wonderful blend of deep, melodious, all-male voices, and of the hissing passage of beaten, foaming sea. Everything was in rhythm. The soft wind carried away my cares, and nothing mattered in the world except the beauty of that moment.

At about ten o’clock in the evening of the sixth day, we saw to starboard twinkling points of light. Over there lies the coast of Egypt, and we are approaching Port Said. The acolytes of the engine room have had their work cut out on this voyage. They have worked frenziedly, but rumour has it that despite their efforts two of our three engines have failed, and we have sprung leaks in three places. Certainly we are visibly lower in the water, but all’s well that ends well. In half an hour we are at Port Said, the motors stop, and we drift with the calm, black waters shimmering and sucking at the sides of our ship. Opposite, on shore, are myriad lamps throwing a wan light on deserted streets. They illuminate monstrous cranes and send a thousand reflections jumping and glittering across the rippling water.

Sirens sound. Busy little bum-boats approach us. I see for the first time an Egyptian wrapped in a garment like an outsize white nightshirt, which I later learn is called a galabieh, with a red fez on his head. But the illusion of a dignified, mysterious oriental world is shattered when an Arab vendor, who has failed to sell a soldier a leather handbag, gives vent to his disappointment in very colloquial Anglo-Saxon English, making me believe that his command of ‘four-letter words’ is possibly equal to my own. Ah, well, it just goes to prove that English really is the true international language.

Although it is night, the wind on my cheeks from the neighbouring desert is warm. When are we to disembark? Nobody knows. In the British army you get used to waiting for somebody else to make decisions for you. However, this is my first journey outside Europe. I’m in no hurry, and it is pleasant to watch the Arab vendors who have gained access to the deck, and a conjuror who gives a ten-minute floor show for suitable remuneration and produces small day-old chicks from the most unlikely places.

Eventually we disembark at two o’clock in the morning. Our large valises are strapped to our backs; our small valises are on our hips. For portability we wear our thick great coats under our webbing. We hump our heavily laden kit bags on our shoulders. Sweating and cursing we cut across the quay, file between shadowy bales stacked one on top of the other, and scramble aboard an Egyptian train waiting in a siding.

During this time a few very young soldiers, who haven’t kept up with our group, lose themselves after leaving the “Empire Battleaxe”, get tangled up with a completely different group of soldiers who are leaving Egypt, and finish up in another ship. This sails triumphantly into the wide blue yonder carrying our friends back to dear old Blighty! We hear nothing of them until several weeks later. Having sailed the length of the Mediterranean three times, they finally finish up at our camp in Egypt, where they should have arrived the first time. That’s par for the course with the British army – everything in a state of absolute and continuous chaos! God only knows what the pay clerks costed their wages to!

Fortunately my own small party reached its allotted railway carriage with no difficulty. I fell asleep on a wooden bench in the long, grey coach in which I found myself after having unhooked my corset of webbing and let everything fall to the floor.

When I awoke, dawn had broken, we were rattling along at a fine speed, and it was surprisingly cold for a tropical country. It was February and still mid winter. Through the windows we could see the yellow, undulating desert. But there were wide lengths of greenery close to the railway, and tall, soaring palm trees dotted the adjoining landscape. Often we passed tumbledown, seemingly half-completed dwellings, on whose roofs were untidy piles of straw, apparently placed as protection against the heat of the sun.

At this hour Arabs were leaving their hovels like animals quitting their caves. Men enveloped in white, burnous-like galabiehs and muffled to the eyes because of the cold, travelled astride small, trotting donkeys. Each was followed by his wife – on foot! – swaddled in a black shawl and generally veiled. Sometimes, the donkey was replaced by a slow, ugly, incessantly nodding camel. One could not fail to notice the abject poverty of these “fellahin”, and this never ceased to appall us during the whole of our stay in Egypt. There seemed to be the very poor and the very rich, with only a small and insignificant middle class.

Towards ten o’clock in the morning it got very hot. Off came greatcoats, and tunics were unbuttoned. The country became bare, dry and uninviting. The trains stopped at several stations, and hordes of vendors descended on us. The technique was for them to approach us slyly and to show suddenly a glittering ring, which they would immediately hide again in a dirty palm. How much? – Two pounds, effendi. A real bargain, oombashi. After the usual haggling, of course, these prices would descend spectacularly to something in the region of five piastres – a shilling.       

Then sellers of oranges, (stolen from roadside groves), would do their best to make a quick turn at our expense. Or banana sellers would clamber aboard, and there was a temptation, for bananas had not been available in England for years. Unfortunately or otherwise we had received no Egyptian money as yet, and very few of our lads had any English or French money left. One thing that surprised us was the fluency with which these dirty, apparently uneducated natives spoke English. Doubtless their range was narrow, but within that range their fluency was perfect. They had, of course, learnt the language by ear, and their grammar was more often than not at fault, but here was a demonstration if I ever saw one of the necessity for linguistic back-up in foreign language teaching, and of the poverty of book teaching if that linguistic back-up is omitted.

At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the train pulled into a siding and we got out. We clambered into lorries, passed through the outskirts of Cairo, and arrived at a reception camp on the edge of the suburb of Heliopolis. The Greek name was well given, for the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and glared back from the white walls of the stone buildings. The lorries stopped, vomited men with their heavy kit and clattering hob-nailed boots, then moved off as each soldier set about finding an empty space in the sea of white tents which covered a plain of sand.

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/maps/africa/zoomify136595.html

[Above is an interactive map from The British Library Online, showing an array of allied sites in Cairo in 1946, and where the troops may or may not go.]

We stayed at this camp for three weeks. There was little to do except scrub one’s packs and webbing with sand and water until they were white. An Arab would be only too pleased to perform this enervating task for a couple of piastres. We used to spend the evenings on the canteen terrace, drinking tea from glasses made from beer bottles, chatting and writing letters.

At this time the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty governing the British occupation was up for rediscussion. There was much talk about this in the newspapers. The better class of Egyptian – the effendim – did not seem particularly anglophobe. No doubt they realised which side their bread was buttered and understood the vast amounts of British currency keeping the economy afloat. But a few louts from among the fellahin used to wait for us in the guise of boot blacks at the entrance to the camp. Thus, whenever we were going into Heliopolis or Cairo we had to run the gauntlet of these fellows, who would approach us pretending to want to clean our shoes. These were always dirty after we had trudged across the sand to the gates. To accept, however, meant that one’s trousers would be smothered in boot polish. We were officially forbidden to resist these people, however much they pestered us, thus cracking a few heads with some sticks and putting an end to the matter was out of the question. However, we used to go out in groups, and if a bunch of Arabs became threatening, there were always a few large stones around which we could pick up and look as if we were prepared to use – as indeed we were. Thus a number of ugly incidents, which blew up from time to time, always seemed to peter out. 

The native shops and stalls, the bistros with their tables scattered across the pavement at which Arabs – some dressed in galabiehs, some European fashion, but most wearing the ubiquitous fez – sat drinking coffee and often smoking hookahs, had a great interest for us. This was unfortunately marred by the hostility we encountered during our first days in Egypt.                                               

Another pastime of the Arabs in the vicinity was to organise raids on the camp. At night, they would cut the barbed wire which marked the perimeter, quietly enter the tents, and steal whatever they could lay their hands on. A rifle was worth twenty Egyptian pounds, a small fortune for a fellah, which was one of the reasons why the arms of all British forces in the Middle East were kept in locked armouries when their owners did not need them.

Ch6 pt2 Toulon and the Empire Battleaxe

I shall always remember Toulon as a yellow town. The palm trees were quite frequent and exotically noticeable to an English eye. As we approached the outskirts of the town the yellow became more pronounced. Every single house seemed to be yellow. The earth was yellow. Even the buds on the trees and plants were yellow. A yellow landscape. At length we drove into a camp of military huts – it was called a camp, though recent rain had turned it into a yellow bog.

I went to get my hair cut by one of the French barbers – nothing like talking to a barber to get the lie of the land, and we had an interesting conversation for about half an hour. That afternoon, I succeeded with several other comrades in extracting myself from the marsh of gluey clay – which was our camp – and we were free to explore.

We stopped a small, broken-down lorry on the road, and perched atop the drums of smelly swill it was carrying, we rode in triumph to the outskirts of Toulon. We got down to finish the last kilometre on foot, thanked the smiling men who had given us a lift, and began to walk. Civilians passed us, hardly sparing a glance for us foreigners, so used were they to meeting us. But the tongue they spoke was familiar to me and from time to time I caught snatches of their conversation. I experienced that peculiar feeling of empathy I have always had whenever I have had the good fortune to visit France. I felt “at home.”

As we came into the town, we saw a tram – two carriages, one pulled by the other, and no “upstairs” such as we were used to in England. The tram was just starting. We began to run, and jumped aboard. The conductress asked us where we were going, and I commenced a long conversation with her trying to find out the geography of the town on behalf of our group.

Near the town centre we left the tram, and for a few moments watched a group of men playing “pétanque” on a gravel patch by the roadside, quite oblivious of passing trams and motorcars. We cast around for something to eat, but restaurants were out because food coupons had to be given for meals. We stopped at a stall near the pétanque players, where we bought bon-bons and dry biscuits from the woman in charge. Cars passed ceaselessly, trams were grinding and groaning. Everywhere one found typical French cafes, with tables and chairs scattered about the pavement and people seated at them, enjoying a glass of wine. This was the civilised way to live!

It begins to get dark. Shop windows become filled with light. No more “blackout”. How wonderful that is. Towards eight o’clock, after having strolled here and there, we discover a little bistro in a side street. The proprietor is very pleasant, and we make the acquaintance of his sister, a charming lady, and of her son, a kiddie of three or four years old who is called, so he prattles to us, “Pierre”. One day I shall call my own son by this name, but that is a long time off. We take a few glasses of Eau de Vie de Marc, a strong white liquid which the “patron” tells us is the nearest thing he has to whisky. At the end of the evening we leave the estaminet with many fervent declarations of friendship. We catch the last tram, leave it on the outskirts of town, and then succeed, despite the late hour in begging a lift on a military lorry going towards our staging camp. The lorry, which is bound elsewhere, sets us down behind the camp, so we have to climb over a high, barbed wire fence with a ten-foot drop on the other side. No problem for old sweats such as us, especially after having enjoyed excellent French hospitality for most of the evening. 

The following day the results of our splurge in the estaminet make themselves felt, and we suddenly discover that we are short of money. This was a situation that had to be rectified. With unaccustomed foresight I had brought with me a spare blanket, scrounged from the quartermasters store in England. Two comrades had similarly provided for themselves. It was merely a matter of finding someone to buy our blankets in exchange for silver to cross the palms of avaricious shopkeepers. We left early in the afternoon with this mission in mind. 

Near our camp stood a small estaminet where one could drink at rickety tables in a small back room. The proprietress, so rumour ran, had started off by selling wine in the usual way, but had climbed somewhat in the world. At the time of our stay in the district, she found herself at the top of the social ladder, being a Buyer of British Military Blankets. These blankets were, of course, ‘half-inched’ from the quartermaster’s store by the rough and licentious soldiery prior to being flogged to Madame. It was this lady, then, whom we had chosen to be our benefactress. 

We therefore shrouded our blankets in greycoats and set stealthily off, like grave robbers carrying corpses out of a cemetery. We succeeded in leaving the camp without raising the suspicions of the sentry at the gate, and arrived at our chosen bistro. This gem in the heart rural France was a tiny cottage surrounded by green and bathed in sunshine. There were four of us, and we all had blankets to sell, except my mate Mack, who was temporarily rolling in money, having persuaded some gullible person to buy his wristwatch.

Garcon – a glass of white wine each before getting down to business – and Monsieur Mack will pay. (He has agreed to finance the group until our fortunes take a turn for the better).

The wine suitably swallowed and savoured, I make enquiries about Madame for it is a blue-jowled gentleman who speaks French with strong Italian accent who is serving us. Madame? She’s out doing the shopping, but she will be back very shortly. In the meantime, would the gentlemen care for another drink? Well….. why not? Mack is paying. But yes, certainly, the same again. Fortunately Madame arrives just as we are sampling our second drink. Good day, Gentlemen. In what can I serve you? In examining some blankets which we have acquired, Madame. Ah, blankets. C’est bien ca. Faits voir. Let’s have a look.                                                          

We display our wares. She fingers them. Her friendly smile becomes pitying, finally disdainful.

“Eh bien, madame?”

“Gentlemen……what can I say? These blankets are…….’moches’. They are absolutely rotten. I could not possibly buy such blankets. They are made of cotton.”

Consternation. Our benefactress had turned into an ogress. Frantically we sing the praises of our army blankets. These blankets are specially made to keep British soldiers warm and fighting fit. How can she say that they are made of cotton!

She fingers them once more. Contempt and scorn fight to gain control of her curling upper lip. Finally she says, “I should be mad to buy these cotton blankets. But…..you are British soldiers, so I will buy one blanket only.”

“One blanket only? But the others are of fine quality, madame.”

“That is not true. They are made of cotton. I will buy one only.”

Her mind is made up. We leave, having each drunk two glasses of wine. After paying for the booze we don’t seem to be much further ahead. We have sold one blanket and we have two to go.

We direct our discouraged footsteps towards another rustic pub, just by the bus stop. A small, dark haired man receives us. We wash out the dust, which has gathered in our throats since the last bistro, with a glass of beer. The bar tender sees our blankets and asks us how much. What does he offer? – A hundred francs apiece for blankets of that quality. – But that’s daylight robbery. Look, Monsieur, see how nice and soft these blankets are. We might……we just might……consider a hundred and fifty francs apiece, but even then you’d be getting them very cheap.

He scratches his head. It is a hard decision. Would we care to buy another glass of beer each while he makes up his mind.

“All right. But wait, when does the bus for Toulon arrive?”

“Not for half an hour yet.”

“But Madame at the other bistro said it was almost due.”

“Mais non. She must have made a mistake. Another beer?”

“We…….ell…….”

“I will pour it out. The order is four beers, eh, messieurs?”

At this moment the bus drives up. Ah, the horrible liar. He is on the point of pouring out the beer. We hurriedly cancel our order, dash out and climb aboard the bus, blankets unfolded and higgledy piggledy. Quelle pagaille! We have to stand in the bus and get in everybody’s way as we try to bundle our blankets up into our greatcoats and reassume some sort of dignity.

The bus enters Toulon and comes to a stop. We leave and lose ourselves in the little streets, which descend towards the harbour. Even now the masts and funnels of the huge, scuttled French Fleet protrude, mournful and sad, above the waters. After some prodding from my friends I approach a housewife who is standing at the door of her house and say to her in my politest French:

“Madame, would you have the kindness to indicate to me the road by which we may arrive at the black market?”

She looks at me as if I am crazy. Hurriedly I explain that we have some blankets to sell, and she gives me complicated directions. We follow them as best we can and finally arrive at a block of dirty grey cement houses, several stories tall, and seeming to form a separate quarter of narrow, cobbled alleys. On the wall facing us is painted a notice: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN TO ALLIED TROOPS. The neighbourhood seems deserted as we cross the threshold of this new, mysterious corner of Toulon. We turn into another alley on the left, and suddenly we discover a dozen men behind us who have appeared from nowhere. An Algerian wearing a fez asks us what we have to sell. We show carefully, prudishly, almost shamefacedly, like young ladies of the Victorian era giving a glimpse of their ankles to infatuated suitors, the corner of a blanket. But abruptly someone else pushes the Algerian aside and plants himself in front of us. He is a tall, thin man, well-dressed and handsome in an effeminate way. We talk; we haggle. The Algerian has vanished. We have nearly concluded a deal when a thickset, loutish man, dressed in a ragged military jacket and baggy military trousers, who has obviously not shaved for days, pushes himself forward, feels the blankets, and announces in a voice of authority: “These are lousy blankets.” There is silence. The thin, well-dressed man becomes doubtful, is suddenly undecided.

I say: “Of course, Monsieur, you may refuse these blankets if you like. That is up to you. But I assure you that their quality is of the first class…….”

Someone whispers something in the thin man’s ear.

“Tiens!” he exclaims. “Un flic. Blimey, a ‘tec.”

It is a magic word. The crowd thins. In next to no time the alley is once again completely deserted. We might have dreamt the meeting. Where the “flic” is, I have no idea. We see nobody.

Since our customers have gone, there is nothing to do but quit this quarter of tall, grim, houses. We retrace our steps, turning over in our minds the possibilities which remain. The whole exercise has been most discouraging, and the general opinion is that we must be realistic. Quite clearly the local market for blankets has been over supplied by British soldiers. The Blanket Boom has burst. The market is very bearish with regard to blankets. It is not a seller’s market any more, and to be honest, our blankets are somewhat threadbare, and anyone wanting to buy them must be hard up indeed. What are we to do?

Somebody suddenly has a brainwave. Suppose we give them to Madame, mother of Pierre, who was so hospitable to us yesterday evening. Why not? We’ve walked enough, and we want to take a weight off our legs. We each buy a large sandwich at one of those “baguette” sandwich stalls, and then direct our steps towards the swing doors of the bistro where we have spent the previous evening. Madame spies us through a haze of pipe and cigarette smoke and serves us with beer. Little Pierre sits down with us, and one of the lads gives him a bar of chocolate.

We have put down our greatcoats on another table with the blankets rolled inside them. I am supposed to make the presentation to Madame with an appropriate little speech. I rise to do so – and two gendarmes enter. I sit down again. Mustn’t incriminate Madame before these bloodhounds of the law. We wait half an hour, but the bloodhounds, who have all this time been engaged in animated conversation, seem set to stay all night. We decide to leave and come back later.

After ten minutes’ walk, we come to a fair ground, and stroll along looking at the stalls. One of the lads nudges my arm and asks, “See that bloke looking at us?”

I turn. A thin, unshaven man, with a waggish expression smiles at us from behind the counter of his stall, then points suggestively to our greatcoats. I go up to him, feeling rather annoyed. Is he trying to be funny?                                            

“Well?

“Well, what have you to sell?”

That, of course, is different.

“Two blankets.”

“Let’s see.”

“With pleasure.”

Rapidly the blankets disappear behind the counter where the fellow feels them, judges them.

“How much are you asking?”

“A hundred and fifty each.” 

“Ça va. It’s a deal.” He searches in a greasy wallet. “Here’s three hundred francs.”

Confound it. I might have got two hundred francs each if I’d only asked. Still, never mind.

“Thanks,” I tell him.

“De rien, mon vieux. Don’t mention it.” He extends a filthy hand, which I shake enthusiastically for the sake of the Entente Cordiale.

“And if you’ve got anything else, Monsieur, anything – understand? – come and see me. Come and see me!”

He smiles fraternally, exposing tobacco-stained teeth, as if this underhand deal is a transaction of honour between two gentlemen. I disengage my hand, and we leave the bright lights, the raucous music and the cries of the fairground behind us.

The following day we got up early, boarded awaiting lorries, and drove through a thin drizzle to the harbour. In single file we made our way aboard a large, rusty ship called The Empire Battleaxe, and waited. Towards nightfall we put out to sea. A mist lay about the bay, half hiding the town. Au revoir, France. See you again soon, I hope. Who was it that said the waters of the Mediterranean were blue? The waters are grey and sullen, the rain dribbles down, and I suddenly feel fed up with this pointless military existence I am forced to lead.

I go below and search for the bed graciously provided for me. It is a piece of canvass stretched across a folding steel frame – one folding shelf amongst several hundred others – and I try to sleep. Towards midnight as we get well out to sea, the Empire Battleaxe, which seemed so big in harbour, starts to pitch and toss like a cork. I find that this has little effect on me if I lie still and compose my mind. But many of the lads get up, caught by the diabolical agonies of sea-sickness, stagger to the lavatory, and have a good vomit. Unhappily there are many who don’t make it as far as the ‘loo’, and as the night wears on, anyone who walks between the beds is well advised to do so carefully and watch where he puts his feet. The engines pound sonorously when the propellers are in the water, whirr in a frenzy when the stern is lifted on the crest of a huge wave, and turn madly in the empty air. We are clearly having a most unseasonable passage.

CH6 Pt1 Recovery then Egypt via France.

After spending six weeks at an American transit camp in the small town of Weissenfels, I was flown, cooped up in an uncomfortable aircraft, to London. I had weighed a little under eight stone when the Americans had liberated us. However, they were most hospitable and kind, and fed us well. I looked quite healthy again when I got back home.

I had only been in England for a few short days when I was sent on indefinite leave. But either my friends were in the services or they had grown away from me. Also I was experiencing that peculiar, disheartening feeling which soldiers have when the war seems to be suddenly over, but they have not yet been returned to civvy street. It is a time of frustration when the excitement of ever-present danger has disappeared. Yet it is also a time of self-doubt and fear of one’s ability to cope with the problems of civilian life.

However, there was still a war on in the Far East. Germany and her European allies were beaten, but perhaps I could rejoin the First Airborne Division, who had been sent to Malaya in preparation for the onslaught on the Japanese islands. I wrote to the OC First Airborne Div Signals asking to be taken back on the strength. I later heard that some of my old mates had had the letter read to them. However, there was no way anybody was going to make a special effort to fly me out to Malaya. But, of course, I did not know that at the time.

The crowded streets and dirty buildings of London were becoming intolerable to me. I had a feeling close to claustrophobia. I tried to get myself recalled from leave so that I could resume my service with the army.

I now had the utmost difficulty in getting myself recalled from leave. The army had successfully disposed of me and no longer wanted to acknowledge my existence. But eventually I succeeded, only to find myself sent to a rehabilitation camp for ex prisoners of war. Here army instructors insisted on teaching me all over again how to fire a three-0-three rifle, despite the fact that I had been firing rifles for the past four years. I also learnt anew how to stand to attention, stand at ease, dress by the right, and most importantly, how to “salute the officer.” (Longest way up, shortest way down, fingers together, at the correct angle, almost touching the base of the forage cap). I suffered this very important training for several weeks. Then began a series of shifts from one camp to another during which my chief duty was to peel potatoes.

It was at one of these camps, on the racecourse at the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, that we learnt one day that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese had capitulated and World War Two was finally over. I am quite sure that we all realised that an era in the history of mankind had finished and that a new and vastly more dangerous one had begun.

By now the pointless fashion in which I had been sent hither and thither had thoroughly annoyed me. Demobilisation was to be extended to avoid a glut of ex-soldiers on the labour market and consequent industrial problems. The fact that I had a job to go back to at the London County Council made no difference. I had at least another year to serve in the army. I therefore resolved to spend it abroad at the army’s expense.

Eventually, after making a nuisance of myself to everybody, I reached a drafting camp outside Newcastle on Tyne. No sooner had I arrived, however, than they stopped sending men to the far-east, and I found myself on a draft to Germany instead. At that time Germany was the one country I did not wish to revisit. My sojourn there as a prisoner had been too recent, and my memories were still bitter. After a prolonged interview with the OC of the camp and frantic negotiations with a comrade to take my place, I finally got myself on a list for a posting somewhere further east.

The war with Japan had been over for a number of months now, and rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to close down. Finally a special order came through that all ex-prisoners of war were to be sent on special Christmas leave, and I journeyed south to London, although I would far sooner have stayed behind.

I came back in time to discover that a further draft – probably the last – was being collected. I was friendly with the sergeant clerk in the company office and with the Company Sergeant Major, and thanks to their influence I was included in this batch of young men who were being sent through France across the Mediterranean to Egypt. They made me a corporal at this stage, as one of the more case-hardened old sweats in this young band of hopefuls. It was the dizziest promotion that I ever obtained in the British army. I was reduced to the ranks some six months later, as I shall relate in due course.

We gathered together on the parade ground one evening, kit-laden and sweating, and journeyed in trucks to the railway station. We spent the following night at a camp outside the twisty-streeted port of Newhaven, and early next morning boarded the sturdy little cross-channel ferry “Isle of Thanet”.

We remained half an hour below deck, awkward and clumsy with our kit bags, valises and life-jackets. Then the motors began to pound, and we set our bows seawards. I climbed on deck, and behind us saw a foaming white wake losing itself in the grey, choppy sea. The chalky cliffs of England, already indistinct, were sinking into the waters of the Channel. Every time that the bows of our ship cut the greyish-blue waves, every time that a little hillock of salt water drenched the deck, the droplets being carried right away to the stern by the cold wind, we were nearer to France.

France! I seemed to have spent half my short life learning her beautiful language. I had also known many of her people. And I had heard many heartbreaking stories of their exile. Yet how many dramas, about which I had never heard, had played themselves out in France during the four years of German occupation! Well, in a few hours we should be treading French soil.

Mack, from Glasgow, one of my new friends, leans over the rail, gazing back towards England. His wife had fallen pregnant to an American soldier. Mack loved her dearly, but had never been able to forgive this infidelity, and they had drifted apart. The memory of her tortured his mind. His reason for volunteering for the draft was to try to forget.

Mack waves sarcastically towards the disappearing shore.

“Bye-bye England. And a soldier’s farewell to everyone, you shower of rotten bastards.” 

I find there the echo of my own thoughts.

Towards midday we drew alongside the silent quay of the little port of Dieppe. This is where the Canadians made their abortive and costly landing in 1942, a rehearsal for the real invasion, which was to come much later. Chains rattled, a narrow gangplank was thrown out and secured by two French seamen in blue caps and jerseys. Then we disembarked and found ourselves in France, a little lost, heavy packs on our backs, and rifles to lean on. Presently some children approached uncertainly, like street mongrels, not sure whether they are going to be welcomed or chased away with kicks. The soldiers dig into their pockets, into their packs and into their gas mask cases, producing sandwiches, which they offer to the children. For the aftermath of war is still with us, the economy of Europe is broken, and food and shelter are at a premium. Chocolate, coffee and cigarettes are the international currency with which one can buy anything.

Some of our soldiers address the children in English, some murder French in the way that only Englishmen can, but communication is established with these hesitant, frightened youngsters. Clearly they see only armed soldiers and do not know what to expect. A kiddy of six or seven years is standing a few yards away from me, his eyes wide, a finger playing with his lower lip. I search in the pockets of my great coat.

“Come on, then. I’ve got something for you to eat.”

Something to eat! His eyes light up. He takes a few hesitant steps. But he is reluctant to come any further.

“Viens ici, mon petit. Don’t be afraid.” 

He comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. During all his childhood his parents must have told him to avoid German troops who have been notorious for picking French people off the streets and sending them straight to forced labour in Germany, or for taking hostages in reprisal for the killing of German soldiers, standing them up against a wall, and shooting them out of hand. In his young mind, all soldiers must be suspect.

The child comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. I have found a bar of chocolate and hold it out to him.

“Du chocolat. Tu le veux? Here, take it.”

We hold our breath, both of us. He is only a couple of feet away from me, but clearly he is scared. But he is tempted. Suddenly he snatches the chocolate from me, scuttles away and takes refuge near a pile of planks. He holds the bar of chocolate against his breast and looks at me, eyes staring, mouth open – a frightened sparrow.

I step forward, but suddenly he turns tail again. Never have I seen an urchin move so quickly. In a moment he has disappeared.

I look at the row of houses opposite. Their walls are still pitted by shrapnel – no repairs have yet been made. To the left, all that remains of a house is a heap of bricks and plaster. A solitary green shutter is still fixed to one wall, and hangs sideways, like a drunken man ready to fall, but clinging stubbornly with one hand. Railway lines run the length of the quay, but higgledy-piggledy, fantastically twisted, no good for anything any more. Maybe the war has twisted the minds of men in the same fashion. To the right a long, white chalky finger, surmounted by a lighthouse, points out into the Channel. How beautiful its whiteness must be when the sun shines, and the waves dance, and the seagulls fly about, at one moment skimming the joyful sea, at another circling the lighthouse.

But the sun is hiding sullenly behind grey clouds, and it seems as if some giant with an immense club has rained down blows upon this town. Dieppe, indeed, has been beaten and ravished by war, which gives death and ugliness in exchange for life and beauty. Even that pretty chalky peninsula is eaten through and through with tunnels, formerly the lairs of German canon, awaiting the approach of the British invasion barges. It is like looking at a beautiful woman whom you know to be eaten up from within by a loathsome disease.

The sky is moody over Dieppe. A cold wind begins to blow, but it cannot blow away the stink of death. This same stale odour pervades bombed habitations everywhere. Only time can cure this stinking illness.

We wait for half an hour, then a dozen lorries – those huge, roaring American lorries, painted grey and with the name of the driver’s wife or girl friend inscribed on the bonnet – come to fetch us. The lorries circle, drive off, and in next to no time we are leaving behind the houses with the picturesque shutters and the hilly streets of Dieppe. On the outskirts of the town, we enter a large camp – a patch of ground, which has been cleared of obstructions and planted with wooden huts. Here we eat in a big communal dining room where pleasant French women show us our places and wait on us. Afterwards we draw blankets and line up at the NAAFI for our rations of cigarettes. 

It is starting to rain as we begin to queue for four o’clock tea, and the dull sky hangs like a pall over the camp. We are happy to receive the order “On the lorries”, and to cross Dieppe once again, this time on our way to the station. The town seems almost deserted. Only a man here in a blue beret or a woman there running her errands glance at us, then turn and continue on their way.

Our train was standing in the station, but we had to wait two hours before it left. During this time workmen with the characteristic French blue beret walked up and down the platform, trying to buy English cigarettes from us. I had a conversation for about half an hour with a young man in his middle twenties who came into the corridor. He had just bought fifty cigarettes and was broke. He told me that the average workman in France received a thousand francs a week which was at that time equivalent to about two pounds ten shillings English, a very low wage. Potatoes, butter and bread, he told us, were rationed, and the cost and conditions of living were worse than under the German occupation. One was free, of course … followed by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. In further conversation it turned out that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years.

Our train gave a jerk and he quickly turned to get off. I stopped him.

“Attends. Tiens.” I gave him a packet of twenty cigarettes.

“But I have no money to pay you.”

“Forget it. We were prisoners of war together, n’est-ce pas?”

The train groans, moves. We hurriedly shake hands.

“Au revoir, and thanks for the cigarettes.”

“Au revoir, my friend, and good luck.”

He turns again and descends to the platform. I am so sorry for the French. God knows, we have suffered enough from the war in England. But the French were invaded by the Germans, suffered death and deportation during the occupation, then were invaded once again by the allies. It seems to have become the practice that in any European war France is always a battleground. Now once more they have a country to reconstruct. I do not envy them their task.

The windows of our coach had no glass, so we were obliged to improvise curtains from blankets and block up the holes as best we could. The fields outside were covered with snow, and as the train rattled along, a piercingly cold wind sought entry. We were soon bitterly cold, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the heating system had gone wrong between our coach and the one in front.

At every stop I got down, hunted out the stationmaster or the engineer and asked what the chances were of mending the break in the heating pipe. Railwaymen squeezed in between the coaches and made learned examinations. Promises that somebody would do something were given lavishly, and sympathy for us in our travelling refrigerator was extreme. Yet somehow or other the heating system remained useless until the end of the journey.

Camps had been set up by the railway track, and from time to time we stopped to have a meal in some huge barn in the country and to draw sandwiches and chocolate to sustain us on our further travels. At these stopping places, no matter how deserted the countryside, women and their children appeared beside the train, and it was to them that the bulk of our chocolate ration went.

We drew into Toulon at about eight o’clock on a clear, mild morning with the sun shining in a watery fashion. We followed a short, underground passage and found ourselves in the street, the object of curiosity of the passers-by. All traces of snow had disappeared, and a tall, slender palm tree signalled that we had arrived at the Mediterranean coast.

Ch5 Pt3 Paddy, cruelty, Freedom.

Paddy and I were loading a clay-tub at the quarry one day when he suddenly took off the old felt hat which he was wearing, flung it in a puddle, and with an unprintable expletive, uttered in a rich Irish brogue, announced that he wasn’t going to work anymore.

“But you must,” I said. “Otherwise they’ll clobber you.”

“Be Jaysers I won’t,” said Paddy, and threw himself full length upon the clayey earth. 

The Maestro saw us from afar and came hurrying over to our section of the quarry.

“Mensch! What’s the matter?”

“Ich bin krank,” said Paddy, holding his hand to his stomach. “I’m sick. Fetch a doctor.”

The Maestro was at a loss.

“You had better come with me to the hut.”

There was a hut at the end of the quarry, where we always ate our lunch. The Maestro helped Paddy there, and subsequently Wingy, looking more like the villain of the piece than ever with his slouch hat and evil smile, came hurrying towards the quarry to find out what the trouble was. Paddy complained of vomiting and pains in the abdomen, and suggested that he might have appendicitis. Wingy was sceptical. But after he had unsuccessfully tried to cure Paddy by kicking him several times in the ribs and other parts of the anatomy with the toe of his jackboot, he had to accept that a cut in his work force was inevitable.

Paddy was sent into Halle. There a South African doctor, himself a prisoner, who ran a clinic for POW’s, diagnosed appendicitis. Paddy went into hospital, and a fierce discussion raged for some days between learned English, German and Polish doctors as to whether his appendix was inflamed or not. Finally he was given a local anaesthetic, and he was able to watch with interest as the offending organ was removed. Of course, there was nothing wrong with it. But the operation was rather more extensive in those days than it is today. So Paddy now had a good rest in hospital until the incision healed.

In spite of everything, however, his plan miscarried. He had hoped that the war would be over in three months and that he would never see Wingy or the quarry again. Unfortunately the war was to last much longer, and Paddy returned to the quarry as a very reluctant labourer in Wingy’s workforce. 

“Flaming one armed penguin,” said Paddy, vengefully. “But I still conned the bastard, didn’t I?”

Our chief pastime when work at the brick factory was done was discussing rumours of the allied invasion of Germany. Thanks to my knowledge of French and some limited German, I became the chief purveyor of rumours. In the quarry were several forced labourers who, having given their promise not to escape, were allowed to go about more or less as they pleased. One of these was Stefan the Pole, who had not seen his wife and son in Warsaw for five years. He had access to a wireless set whose owners tuned in to London, and every morning he gave me news which he, in his wishful thinking, probably garbled somewhat, and which I, not always fully understanding, undoubtedly garbled even more. After each recital of Anglo-American and Russian successes on their respective fronts, I would ask:

“Stefan, are you sure this is true?”

And Stefan would answer: “Yes, it is true. Every word.” Then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “English radio. English radio speak.”

Two other informants of mine were Piccolo and Mario, former Italian soldiers, now pressed into the unwilling service of the Reich. Piccolo and Mario both spoke good French, albeit with a strong Italian accent, and under the jealous eye of Wingy, who understood only German, they would pass on to me all the news they had picked up in the town.

Sometimes, too, they would bring me cooked sugar beets to eat. Sugar beets, indeed, threatened to become the staple diet of all of us.

At this time the sugar beet harvest in Germany was in full swing. Often Polish ex-soldiers used to drive ox carts loaded with it past our billet towards the railway. Then we would rush to the barred windows.

“Psst! Kamerad!”

Quickly the Pole would dismount, grab an armful of sugar beets and thrust them through the bars to us before the guard in the adjoining annexe had seen him. These sugar beets we used to bake in the barrack stove. A black crust would form on the outside which, when chipped off, disclosed a soft, sweet core. Unfortunately, too many sugar beets gave one a distended stomach and excruciating pains, for which reason Wingy had strongly forbidden their consumption. Thus our guards were always on the alert for the sound of an ox cart on the cobbles outside.

One day in the quarry I got a piece of grit in my right hand. The hand turned septic, and the inflammation spread up my arm. I was in considerable pain, but Wingy would not let me go to the doctor, telling me when we met in the factory one day, that I would shortly know, as he did, what it was like to lose an arm. As luck would have it, there was a new Feldwebel in charge of the Arbeits-kommando. I was finally sent to the sick bay in town with Pop. A grey haired old guard who was friendly with us all, although I never entirely forgot that he had joined in with everybody else in beating us up after the four of us had escaped from the lager. From the sick bay, I was sent immediately to hospital, with the message that I could possibly lose a finger. However, the German doctor who operated did a good job, and today the only souvenir I bear is a small scar joining the third finger and the palm of my right hand. The result of this operation, however, was that I spent several weeks with my arm in a sling unable to work. 

Soon after my return, a skipful of clay came off the overhead rail in the quarry and fell on my right hand, crushing my thumb and obliging me to spend several more unproductive weeks in the billet. Wingy, who heartily detested me, and whose feelings I reciprocated in full, therefore took the opportunity of transferring me and one or two other unsatisfactory characters, including Paddy to another brick factory on the other side of Halle. I guess it makes sense, if you have rotten staff, to transfer them to the opposition.

I never saw Wingy again, but later, when I was free, I passed through the town in an American truck. The Polish flag floated lazily over my former prison, and I wondered whether some foreign worker, ill treated for years by Wingy, had seized his opportunity and taken just vengeance.

The new brick factory to which I had been sent stood on a main road leading out of Halle, and differed very little from the one I had left. One morning, shortly after I had been transferred there, the town received its first serious air raid. The sirens wailed, we heard the spluttering of guns in the distance, and then the attacking aircraft came roaring in. They were American, and they flew over continuously for about ten minutes, never breaking formation. Bombs began to fall from their silver bodies just as they passed over the factory, and we could see little trails of vapour as they hurtled diagonally down to the centre of the town. There were many French forced labourers working beside us whose first sight this was of allied revenge, and they went wild with delight. After several minutes, the last bomb sped shrieking to earth, and the last aeroplane disappeared into the blue sky. But an immense pall of grey smoke was rising from the centre of Halle and spreading over the town.

That night, and on subsequent days, we were marched into town in a quite hopeless attempt to repair some of the damage which had been caused. For instance, they gave us shovels to fill in bomb craters that would accommodate a small house. Evidently the railway station had been the central target, for overhead electric cables had been ripped down, and the steel tracks were twisted fantastically above gaping bomb craters. But other parts of town had been hit also, and in one street we saw the mutilated corpses of men, women and children laid out by the civil defence authorities in neat rows along the pavement. Many years later I paid my first and only visit to the killing room of an abattoir, where the bodies of beasts are carried on meat hooks around the work floor while men skin them and then carve up the bloody carcases in transit. Only then did it occur to me that the expressions “charnel house” or “slaughter house” are the only terms to describe accurately the scene of bloody murder we saw that night by naphtha flares in the town of Halle.

Such is the nature of modern warfare.

A few days later, when we were working some way away, in the quarry, another alert sounded, and we retired with our guards to the little hut where the men ate their lunch until the all clear should go. Grimly I recollected London’s baptism of fire. Then I remembered how the inhabitants of Halle who had previously ignored the sirens now scuttled like bevies of startled farmyard hens for the nearest cellar marked “Luftschutzraum.” 

Suddenly Paddy’s voice broke into my thoughts, saying, “D’you mind moving away from the stove?”

He was speaking to a thin, irregular-toothed Czech, a volunteer worker who was regarded by everyone as something of a collaborator. The Czech had planted himself directly in front of the iron stove so that nobody else could see the fire.

“D’you mind moving, please?” asked Paddy a second time.

The Czech affected not to understand.

“D’you mind moving so that we can get warm as well as you?”

Paddy repeated, and made signs so that the other could not fail to understand, and was obliged to shift very slightly to one side.

“Thanks,” said Paddy, sarcastically. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure.” He had never liked the Czech, who was a great tale-teller to his German masters, and I could see that his Irish temper was rising.

Suddenly the Czech said: “Ah, this terrible war. So many people are dead in Halle. Men, women and children.” 

“That’s the way war is,” said Paddy. “Dies ist Krieg, Verstanden? War is bad. Men, women and children – no difference in war. Impossible to make any difference – verstehen? The Germans have bombed us. Now we are bombing the Germans. It cannot be helped. Krieg – War.” 

The Czech looked at him through half closed eyes. Paddy was a small man, not physically imposing. The Czech spoke in clear, good German, thinking perhaps that Paddy with his mere smattering of the language would not understand him.

“What terrible destruction.” A sneer revealed his ugly teeth. “But then, what can you expect? Alle Englische Leute sind Schweinerei! All English people are swine!”

The last words, hissed spitefully, brought a sudden stillness throughout the hut. Everybody had understood perfectly. But while the rest of us were letting it sink in, Paddy was on his feet, his face chalk white with anger.

“What’s that? What’s that?”

The Czech was uncertain of himself. He continued to sneer, but looked towards the German workers and the guard for support. Suddenly Paddy punched him wickedly in the face. Crack! Like a cricket ball meeting the bat.

“What’s that you say?” Again he hit him. The Czech stumbled against a table.

“What’s that you say?”

Beside himself with rage, Paddy smashed his clenched fist again and again into the other’s face. Blood was trickling from the side of the Czech’s mouth.

Then the guard interposed himself and we were pulling Paddy away. 

“OK, Paddy. Leave the lousy collaborator alone. You’ll kill him.”

“Kill him? Too true I’ll kill the bastard if he doesn’t stay away from me.”

The unfortunate Czech was not at that moment in a position to stay away from anyone, having collapsed in a daze against the table.

A second guard came bustling across, opened a tin and offered it to Paddy.

“Eine Zigarette?”

Paddy looked at him, composed himself, then carefully took a cigarette, rather as if he were selecting a choice Havana cigar.

“Thank you kindly. I’m obliged to you. Dankeschön, Posten.”

“Bitte,” said the guard, politely. “Don’t mention it.”

He took a cigarette himself, produced matches, and with assiduous attention gave Paddy a light.                

The Czech had picked himself up and slunk to the back of the barrack. The guard proceeded to address all and sundry.

“This man,” said the guard, placing an affectionate arm around Paddy’s shoulders, “is a good soldier. He did well to strike that other person. He was defending his Fatherland. In his position, I would also have defended my Fatherland. Everybody must defend his Fatherland.”

We English looked at each other in amazement. We might almost have been transported to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, or to the Theatre of the Absurd, although that had not yet been invented. Here were the Americans belting the tripe out of the Germans in Halle, an Irishman belting the tripe out of a Czech for insulting the English over the Americans, and the Germans praising the Irishman for supporting the English……..Une drôle de guerre……A bloody funny war………

It must have been a fortnight later that we heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. It continued for two or three days, growing rapidly louder. Then, one night, we were roused from our beds in the barrack, lined up outside, marched through the factory grounds and out into the main road. All the French prisoners had been paraded as well, and our two columns merged into one as we poured into the street.

“Bon soir, camarade.” 

“Ca va?”

“Ca boume. Et toi?” 

“Il paraft que les Boche vont trinquer.”

At the gate stands a Russian forced labourer. It appears that only prisoners of war are being evacuated.

“Cheerio, Russky.”

“Sheeri-o, Kamerad.”

I look around for some Italian friends of mine – black marketeers who have connections among the farmers in the country, and whose billet is normally stuffed with food of the kind to make the average German worker’s mouth water. They are not to be seen, and the word is that they have sneaked away into the countryside to await the advancing American troops.

Suddenly, in time with our marching feet, a song begins. The Frenchmen who for years have suffered bullying, hardship and separation from their families are beginning to sing the Marseillaise. The melody starts softly at first, then bursts full throatedly through the German streets. Even the English, who do not know the words, hum the tune.

“Allons, enfants de la Patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

L’étendard sanglant est levé……….”

It is triumph. Triumph! Who can explain the joy in the hearts of people who have been degraded prisoners, and now suddenly smell freedom. Democracy and decency have triumphed in spite of everything. Soon the English will return to their foggy island and the French to beautiful, incomparable France.

Tramp, tramp, tramp. We march right through Halle, which, with its bombed buildings and derelict trams, now looks very much like Arnhem after the battle there, and into the countryside beyond. Presently the first joy of approaching liberation disappears. We have all been slowly starving for several months, and we are thin and weak. Conversation flags, the column loses step and begins to straggle. On either side the guards, themselves tired and dispirited, shout at us to get a move on.

“Los! Schneller! Schneller!”

At five o’clock in the morning we are only too pleased when a halt is called and we are all of us able to throw ourselves down on the frost covered ground, just as we are, and sleep. At sun-up, cold and stiff, we are roused, and the stumbling, staggering column makes its way forward again. There is no food. From now onwards we must fend for ourselves as best we can. Some of us have an odd tin of cocoa or coffee saved from the occasional Red Cross parcel which got through to us. These will be exchanged at farmhouses on the way for a loaf of bread. If we come across a potato field, we will plunder it. Sometimes, when we pass through villages, the German inhabitants will appear at their doors and offer us slices of bread.

In one village, as our column straggles through the main street, a German woman calls me into the back and gives me a glass of milk and a sandwich.

“I am very grateful to you,” I tell her, knowing how desperate the food situation is becoming for everybody. “Danke vielmals.”

“Bitte,” she says. “You are welcome. My son is also a soldier – in the German army.”

At another village, where I beg a glass of water from a grizzled old woman, I receive a shock.

“President Roosevelt ist tot.”

President Roosevelt is dead.

“What?” It is unbelievable. It cannot be. How will the world go on without this great American, the one true statesman who wanted to bring peace to mankind.

“……Are you sure?”

“Ja. The English radio. It is terrible. He was a very good man.” 

This is a tribute indeed from a German.

I tell my friends. The French prisoners, seeing their expressions of stunned surprise, ask me what is wrong. I tell them, and they, too, are shocked.

“Non. C’est pas possible. Pas possible.” One cannot believe it. 

The news spreads along the column and gloom grips all of us. The German guards shake their heads when we tell them about it.

“It is bad…bad.”

In later years history dealt harshly with Roosevelt’s judgment at Yalta. The occupation of much of Eastern Europe by the Russians was laid largely at his door. But I think that the respect in which he was held by so many diverse people, was a tribute to his honesty of purpose. If honesty has no place in international politics, well, that is another thing.

As we marched slowly through the flat fields of Middle Germany, we became less capable of effort. Soon we were stopping every twenty minutes or so for a ten minute rest. Then the guards would rouse themselves and us also, and we would struggle on for perhaps another mile. Sometimes we heard the sound of guns behind us. Once, in the evening, when we were camped in a large potato field, we saw the glow of a big fire somewhere on our flank. Presently allied aircraft appeared in the sky and began to shadow our column. They aroused a faint flame of hope in our hearts, but really we were becoming too exhausted to care much about anything except the next hundred yards or so of road and how it was to be covered. Many of us as the day wore on, would collapse on the road as it became too much of an effort to continue. This happened to me on two or three occasions. I remember a German officer coming up and standing over me for a few moments, perhaps giving me time to recover, then making a show of unbuttoning his pistol holster and saying, ”Na, los!” Would he have used his pistol on me had I been unable to move? I have no idea. Somehow I always struggled to my feet and struggled on.

Finally, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Leipzig, we came to a huge half completed camp. Here, in a forest encircled by barbed wire, English, French, Polish, Yugoslav and Sikh prisoners of war gathered together to await they knew not what.

Fires were forbidden, but we all began cutting down bushes and making fires just the same. The camp was so huge and the guards so few that they could do nothing about it.

In any case, from the frequent appearance of English and American aeroplanes overhead it was obvious that the allies were aware of our position, that they had complete control of the skies without any opposition, and that the German Reich was in its death throes. All that we had to try and do now was survive just a little bit longer.

We were roused early one morning, and in a milling, mixed column, poured out of the main gate. All sorts of rumours were rife. The first one, apparently believed emphatically by the German guards was that the war between Germany and the Anglo-Americans was shortly to be called off, after which we should all become allies and fight the Russians. This was so incredible that we didn’t give it a moment’s serious thought. It was quickly superseded by a more likely rumour that the Russians had begun a push towards Leipzig, and rather than have us all fall into their hands, the Germans had decided to move us westwards in the direction of the American lines.

Before coming into the countryside, we passed through a small village. Every house was being evacuated. Horse carts and oxen carts were loaded with chairs, cupboards, beds and sheets. These were the accumulated possessions of years for which people had worked out their lives. These desperate families were seeing a lifetime of toil destroyed in a matter of hours. Sometimes an old man would be sitting ready to drive the cart away, but mostly it would be the woman of the house who was in charge, her children gathered about her or perched on top of the piled up household goods. The younger men – even at this stage the young teen-age boys – had, of course, been called up for the army. We pitied these people. Who knew what wanderings and miseries lay before them, or if and when they and their menfolk in the military would see each other again. On the other hand, what mercy had the Germans shown to refugees crowding the French roads in 1940. And what mercy had been shown to untold numbers of people murdered in concentration camps because, by an accident of fate, they had been born into Jewish families? Or they had some tenuous connection with Jewish families which, according to Hitler’s mad philosophy, made them less than human.

These were sobering, saddening thoughts, and the dull, cold morning made our mood even more sombre. But as the day wore on, the sun came out. And with the warmth of its rays, a new hope tingled within us.

The wildest rumours now rippled through our ranks, the most unbelievable of them being that a temporary armistice had been declared, and that all prisoners of war in this part of Germany were being marched straight into the American lines. At about mid day we noticed – simultaneously, it seemed, as if by telepathy – that our guards were no longer with us. Suddenly a Frenchman beside me pointed excitedly across the fields.

“Look. The American flag.”

I strained my eyes in the now bright sunlight. In the distance a patch of cloth fluttered above a farmhouse.

“That’s not the American flag. That’s a white flag.”

There was the murmur of an engine in the distance. Then, with a sudden roar, a small artillery observation aircraft passed overhead. No sooner had it disappeared than we heard the stuttering of a motorbike, and a soldier in the uniform of the American army came riding along the column. A few moments later he returned and went pop-popping into the distance.

We were now passing through a village. White flags hung from all the windows, and silent groups of people stood at their doors, staring at us as we went by. Tired as we all were, we stumbled on as fast as we could. There was an indescribable excitement about the column, bordering on hysteria as pent-up emotions were released. Like a troop of thirsty horses smelling water, we were smelling freedom. Nobody can really know what a sweet word that is unless they have experienced imprisonment.

Finally we came into the town of Wűrzen on the River Mulde. White flags hung at all the windows. The column broke into a stumbling run. From the distance came the sound of cheering as men ahead of us realised the incredible fact that they were free and gave vent to their feelings accordingly. On the street corners German soldiers stood in bedraggled grey-green groups, their rifles stacked in neat heaps. American infantrymen, looking like cowboys with their low-slung revolvers joggling at their hips and tin hats pushed to the back of their heads, lounged nonchalantly on guard.

Cloud drifted across the sky and obscured the sun. A faint drizzle began to fall. But we did not heed it. We too began to cheer, hysterically, with breaking voices. We scattered all over the street, stopping every American soldier we saw, shaking hands with them, embracing them, even.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Glad to see you, chum! Glad to see you, mate!”

Freedom, freedom! In two days’ time I shall be twenty three years old. Never in all my life have I received such a marvellous birthday present as this.

Sitting on the kerb is a tough, stocky little man whose tartan shoulder flashes proclaim him to be a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He looks up as I pass. His eyes are filled with tears; and tears of unashamed joy are streaming down his unshaven cheeks.