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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 2 — How To See Egypt On A Pound A Week

page 15

Chapter 2
How To See Egypt On A Pound A Week

WE were tired after our 90-mile train journey from Port Tewfik, and by the time we had marched from Maadi siding to our lines, sorted ourselves into tent groups, rushed through the cold air in lorries to an improvised meal of M&V,1 returned, assembled our bed-boards and made our beds, darkness had fallen. The greenish afterglow of sunset showed little except the outline of far escarpments, the towering pylons of the Marconi wireless station, the rugged contours of what was to be known later as Bludger's Hill. It was too dark to go exploring.

In places the surrounding darkness was pale with bell tents and the tops of the nearest ones glowed discreetly orange, but apart from the talk and laughter in our own lines Maadi seemed unnaturally hushed and shrouded for a great camp. The chill and silence and uncompromising solidity of the desert was strange after our long series of nights in the Orion's warm, quivering, and noisy bowels.

The orderly officer made his rounds; orange faded from the tent tops; silence flowed in from the escarpments. Soon we slept, but after a while the cold crept up through our bed-boards and into our very bones.

Although it was still cold when we breakfasted the next morning, by ten o'clock we had been ordered to wear hats and shirts as a protection against the sun. The day was a holiday and we spent it in settling down and generally taking our bearings. No leave to Cairo was granted that night but as soon as it was dusk ‘C. Jay’ O'Brien,2 Pat Wells,3 and Percy Sanders4 slipped away, returning in the small hours with news of a wonderful city of girls and music and bright lights. The beer, they said, was tolerable.

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After a few days the allowance of leave was quite generous and before long our knowledge of Cairo rivalled our knowledge of Auckland. Its old treasures, its languorous and heavy-lidded charm, never fresh and clean except for one instant at daybreak, never really beautiful except for one hour at sunset, made little impression on us. What we appreciated was the Stella beer and the fleshpots: whole chickens at a serving, omelets as big as chessboards, eggs by the dozen—they were small, though, and tasted as if the birds that laid them were addicted to taking snuff. The only trouble was that we were paid but 100 piastres a week; no—75, for the Major considered that we should save something against the day when longer leave would be granted.

Just to walk through Cairo, however, was an education. Its streets were pure Vanity Fair, and Sharia Wagh el Birket was the prototype of all the Broad and Flowery Paths so beloved of nursery allegorists. What pluckings at khaki sleeves! What throaty whisperings, inviting the innocent soldier (at reduced rates for a party) to witness indecent exhibitions—which, to judge from certain oblique and tasteless references to the Young and the Old Obadiah, seemed to have enjoyed some measure of popularity with an earlier generation of New Zealanders! We were a mark, too, for the vendors of pornography. After the stolen watches, the imitation jewellery, and the fountain pens (hot from the Pasha's breast pocket) had been turned down, out came the postcards and the little smudged books. The latter found ready buyers, for they were often extremely funny, but not in the sense that the authors had intended them to be. In their grubby and ill-spelt pages the expressions and sentiments of the gutter were set forth in the kind of prose style one associates with Victorian lady novelists—Marie Corelli, for instance.

But the best entertainment of all was provided by the common people of Egypt, the great army of Georges, the street-corner boys, the fellahin: in short, the Wogs (wily oriental gentlemen). Unlike the pashas, beys, and big effendis, who usually went around in a great state of moisture and fuss, as though life were a large auction sale and the best bargain was just going under the hammer, the wog took his world easily. Our attitude towards him, adopted a few days after our arrival in Egypt, never altered. It was made up of amused tolerance, intense exasperation, and the respect due to a page break page break page 17 person capable of expressing a whole philosophy of life in one word: Maleesh—never mind. In their bottomless cynicism (if ever you hear of a romantic wog give us news of him), their delight in a hard bargain, their imperturbable good nature, and their enormous splay feet—which seemed, as it were, to grin up at us, deliciously deflating human dignity, each root-like toe as comic and full of character as a Thurber drawing—we found sources of unending entertainment.

black and white photograph of soldiers on parade

At Ngaruawahia, 1939

black and white photograph of soldiers on parade

On the Orcades at Fremantle

black and white photograph of soldiers unloading truck

Christmas parcels, Liverpool, 1940

black and white photograph of cave

Maudi from the Tura caves

Altogether, what with resisting or surrendering to temptation, eating large and indigestible meals, drinking the mild Stella or the raging zibbib, and carrying on interminable dialogues, compounded of banter and abuse, with our friends the wogs, an evening in Cairo was not dull.

The same cannot be said for the first few weeks of our training in Maadi Camp. We had a growing conviction, common, probably, to all untried soldiers, that already we were trained to a frazzle. We began to count up the hours we had spent in route-marching and on the parade ground and to regret that we had not been able to spend them in learning, say, to play the saxophone or class wool. A sense of waste was heavy upon us.

The weather throughout February was unpredictable—it blew hot and it blew cold. Nevertheless we got through a good deal of training. On the 19th a month-long course in infantry work was started and there were special courses for NCOs, drivers, and motor-cyclists.

During March our training entered a more interesting phase. Using pool transport, we went into the desert on exercises that lasted several days at a time and gave us valuable experience in night driving and taught us a little about sleeping rough. Before that we had believed we were cold at nights! The Workshops' drivers were happier too. They had missed their tools as a man misses tobacco.

At last we were busy in what seemed to us a sensible way. There were camp driving duties, and parties were sent to Port Said and Alexandria to ferry new vehicles to Abbassia Garrison, in Cairo. This was a tremendously sought-after job, for it entailed a train journey, a night in an hotel, and the chance of a day's leave.

April was like March, but when May came we were issued with our full war establishment of vehicles, which included lorries for page 18 the two transport sections that were yet to join us—B and C.5 There they were—brand-new Bedfords—lined up in our vehicle park. We oiled them and greased them; we checked them and polished them; we stood back and looked at them. We felt we could go a long way in those lorries.

The wiseacres who had once predicted that we should never leave New Zealand were now busy predicting that we should never see action. Already a ‘Home-before-Christmas’ clique was in existence. Probably every unit of every expeditionary force in history has possessed a branch of that hardy and pathetic society that annually dissolves itself on the approach of Christmas and as regularly reassembles on Boxing Day.

Extraordinary months! On 9 April Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway and everyone was delighted and with good reason—Mr Chamberlain himself assured us that Hitler had missed the bus. It was a blow to our chances of seeing action, but still—home before Christmas! A few days later British troops landed in Norway and the sportsmen who had gambled on a long war (two years at least) began hedging. Then the British began to withdraw from Norway, but it didn't matter really, because, you see, Hitler had doubled his supply problem, and in a month a million mechanised divisions burn up a billion tons of oil, and production in Germany and Roumania—but you know the story. The Christmas Club, however, lost a few members that week. On 10 May Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg were invaded by Germany and paratroops landed near Rotterdam. Mr Chamberlain said nothing about missing buses this time: he resigned. But there is no record of any general exodus from the Christmas Club. Winston was now in power, and the present situation, so the newspapers implied or explicitly stated, was the chance we had been waiting for. At last Hitler had been driven into the open. It would be over before we could get there.

We did take a few precautions, however. We established machine- page 19 gun posts in our part of the camp and leave was difficult to get for a day or two.

Holland stopped fighting; the Belgian Government moved to Ostend, and we looked at our new Bedfords. They were standing there in long lines, their blunt, business-like noses pointing towards the Egyptian border. We looked at them and wondered. Nearly everyone, including a few renegades from the Christmas Club, hoped that we should use them at least once.

During the third week of May, while the Germans were driving towards the Channel ports, we left Maadi for Abbassia Garrison, moving into self-contained quarters that had been specially designed for a transport unit. For the lorries there were covered bays and a petrol pump. For us there were cool, stone barrack-rooms, a NAAFI, a shower-house, a playing pitch, and tennis courts. A tailor, a barber, and a dhobie had been thrown in for good measure.

We were very comfortable but we were also very busy, for with our fine quarters we had taken over the transport duties in Cairo Sub-area from the Royal Army Service Corps. In addition to supplying the Garrison with transport for its domestic needs and doing a hundred and one different jobs in and around Cairo itself, we assisted in clearing Port Said and Port Tewfik of what the newspapers would have described as an ever-increasing volume of war material. Almost every lorry was in use every day and there was only one driver for each. The A Section drivers drove their own and B Section's lorries and the forty-odd motor-cyclists in Company headquarters drove C Section's.

We worked from dawn till dusk. We delivered rations to British troops stationed in the Garrison; we ran a school bus for their children (‘Hey, Mister, my daddy's a sergeant-major! Got any stamps, Mister? Got any small change?’); we carried army clerks from mess to office (this was in the days before Rommel had done away with most of the small amenities of Base life); we carted ammunition from Tura railway siding, five or six miles south of Maadi, to Tura caves, then the largest magazines in Egypt. This job meant getting up at half past three in the morning and working until dusk but we preferred it to driving for the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Abbassia. Senior British officers used to go there for page 20 refresher courses, which entailed their being driven into the desert to watch TEWTs, a pastime in which our drivers invariably declined to join, a TEWT being not, as the name suggests, a small sandpiper, but a tactical exercise without troops. Some of them were watched in extremely rough country and the care with which we negotiated it (with a trayful of senior officers bouncing at our backs) depended to a large extent on our treatment in the matter of soft drinks—these were carried in a special lorry—and the number of times we had been annoyed by unnecessary commands and gratuitous advice. A driver in his own cab likes to be treated with a little of the deference paid to a captain on his own bridge.

While the evacuation from Dunkirk was in progress we carried out a Passive Air Defence and Internal Security exercise, and from then on, whenever an alert was sounded, it was the duty of certain drivers to take their lorries at once to given points in Abbassia and the city and stand by to evacuate the wives and children of British soldiers. We had an ack-ack post in the centre of our parade ground and this was manned day and night. Shooting over empty coverts was ever an ungrateful task, and one driver, whose alertness when game was plentiful was afterwards to become a byword, was found asleep on duty, a misfortune that resulted in his being the first of us to go to a detention camp.

Others were falling asleep too, for the long trips to the ports were a severe strain with only one driver to a lorry.

The road between Cairo and Alexandria was particularly conducive to sleep. Sticky in the great heat, it stretched ahead of us like a hundred miles of black adhesive tape, mesmerizing us as a chicken is mesmerized by a chalk line. After thirty or forty miles, with the engine humming high and sweet and acting as an additional soporific, the driver would begin to nod, and his eyes, for all his efforts, would keep closing automatically as though they were being pressed shut by tiny springs. Presently he would plunge off the road into soft sand, and, jerking wide awake, swerve desperately to avoid a telegraph post. After that fright, of course, there was no danger of falling asleep, and yet, five minutes later….

We were fortunate in being busy at this time. Spending hours on the parade ground practising the lying-load position would have been intolerable while the shadow of the long night, inexorable as page 21 the fulfilment of an old prophecy, was falling upon city after famous city, and Britain, watched by the whole world with pity, with wonder, or with gloating joy, was rousing herself like an old watchdog and straining cankered ears for the word that nearly everyone had believed she was too sick, too tired, too sunk in torpor, ever to hear again—the word and the drums.

No one told us, after the end of May, that we should be home before Christmas. We were promised different things: blood, toil, tears. Even the old oil story was in abeyance for a short while.

Mussolini declared war on Great Britain and France on 10 June. He said they had hindered the advance of the Italian people.

One of our earliest reactions was to tumble out of bed in the small hours and into a large air-raid trench, which we manned as a defensive position. Machine guns were posted at vital points and our Boys anti-tank rifle was taken from its canvas cover. For a day or two there was quite a Vitai Lampada atmosphere about the Garrison, but nothing came of it—neither jammed gatlings nor dead colonels. No Fascist-inspired mobs, crying on Islam, attempted our barricades, and on the 12th the Egyptian Government broke off diplomatic relations with Italy.

None the less the war had moved immeasurably nearer. The lion was right out of his cage now, and from time to time, among the thickets of conjeeture and misinformation, one glimpsed an eye or the flickering of a tawny tail. British Somaliland was invaded and a large convoy of our lorries rushed from Tura to Port Said with ammunition. For two days the drivers waited for the order to unload, but it never came. Instead there was news of an evacuation, and our next task was to take ambulances to Port Said to collect wounded. Sick and wounded soldiers were also beginning to arrive at Cairo main station and we used to meet them at night and take them to Helmieh hospital. Some were suffering from bomb wounds, others from dysentery and desert sores. They came from the Western Desert.

There the Might of Britain (to employ a euphemism popular at that time) stood guard along the Libyan border, and its supplies (which we thought of as an endless stream until the loneliness of the coast road forced itself on our attention) were brought forward page 22 by rail and by motor transport. To assist with this work the Ammunition Company inaugurated a ferry service, and from the middle of July onwards convoys left regularly for Maaten Baggush, some 170 miles east of the frontier, with mechanical transport stores.

Turning west before they reached Alexandria, the drivers travelled the rest of the way by the coast road, every inch of which was to become as familiar to them as the road between school and home. Later, the coast area was covered with tents and signposts, and parts of it resembled a used-car mart and parts a sandy slum, and the whole was cut and criss-crossed like a butcher's block. But at that time it was all virgin and we were seeing it with fresh eyes.

We saw with a shock the blueness of the Mediterranean (surely you could have dyed your shirt in it?) and how between road and sea the sand dunes were as white as sugar. On the other side the desert stretched away to the horizon, changing colour with the changing light and clouds. Rivers of vandyke brown divided continents of chrome yellow and spread evenly into far oceans of red ochre and burnt sienna. Shadows as big as armies brushed over them, travelling with the speed of trains and conquering the sunlight; and small shadows, no larger than country estates, swam singly.

We started long before dawn on these trips, rushing through sleeping Cairo and then through the cold, sweet desert. We took rations with us and our beds, and we revelled in this taste of freedom—sausages cooking over the primus, the tea stewing in the billy, bedrolls flopped out on the sand. At the end of the journey there was beer to look forward to in the Tommy mess, and perhaps —after we had unloaded the next morning—a whole day on the beach. Then home again, arriving at Abbassia in the evening with a three-day beard and a comfortable feeling of contempt for poor stay-at-homes who were ignorant of wide spaces.

The Western Desert! The magic syllables punctuated conversation in the NAAFI, clinched arguments, were spoken in sleep. Around them a cult crystallised and there was one of our number who reoriented his whole life in relation to Maaten Baggush, even going so far as to abandon washing.

The ferry service, Cairo Sub-area duties, guard and passive air page 23 defence duties, vehicle maintenance … our days were full. Nevertheless, we had time for other matters besides work.

For weeks past the red flame trees bordering the playing-field had gazed down through long hot afternoons on our victorious cricket team.6 Moon-soaked, they had seen us wandering home from late leave in Cairo, comfortably mellow and unbuttoned. Possibly they had witnessed idylls, for by now at least two of us had found time to become engaged. Certainly their slim branches, towards NAAFI closing-time, had trembled to Ted Schonau's7 piano notes and to the voice of Tom Woodill8 leading us in our favourite songs, the most popular of which concerned the confessions of a dying airman and the effect of Egypt on our morals and our good names.

Yes, it was all mixed and mixed. Much of it was hot desert, and mounting drowsiness, and endless adhesive tape, black and melting at noon. Much of it was long, sweaty waits outside Cairo station or in dusty, stinking streets, while one's eyes went again and again to the ever-handy buckets and barrowfuls of soft drinks—boissons gazeuse—and all the desire in the world centred around those cool bottles of colouring, Nile water, and animalcules. But much of it was breezy dashes down broad avenues, joyous swoopings round wide, well-cambered bends, and a streaming of scented night air beneath open windshields.

Much of it was flame trees drenched in sunlight, and a grittiness underfoot, and the yielding fusion of ball and cricket bat, and the smell, sweetish and persistent, of hot oil, hot engines, hot rubber— and flies buzzing, tirelessly important and importunate; and mosquito nets like gauzy wedding dresses misting a few sleepers in the long barrack-room; and skull-capped Abdul with white galabieh and red sash moving lazily along the verandahs and pausing now and then to intone mournfully and mockingly: ‘Lemonë. Ver' g-o-o-d—ver' hygiene—ver' col'.’

And much of it was flame trees under the warm moon, and the NAAFI's luminous blue windows marked with whorls and page 24 scratches of gold light, and a blast of song, hot and outrageous, buffeting the soft darkness:

An airman told me before he died
And I don't think the bastard lied….

Early in September our A Section drivers— ‘My chickens' Lieutenant Moon9 called them—spread their wings for the first time and set out for the Western Desert.

The date, 5 September, marks the beginning of a chapter—for the family feeling that was to hold the section together through four long years, those characteristics, that corporate personality (that soul, if you like the word) that was to distinguish A Section from its equally individual companions—aloof B Section, friendly, games-playing C Section, party-loving Workshops, Headquarters, harassed and cynical, and the still unborn Ammunition Platoon with its Cinderella complex—started from the moment when Lieutenant Moon and his chickens took flight before dawn, heading for the Western Desert to set up in business on their own.10

Ikingi Maryut, near the Maryut turn-off on the Alexandria road, was their immediate destination, and every mile of the journey increased their delightful sense of being on active service. This was further heightened soon afterwards by a brilliantly spectacular air raid on Alexandria. Steel helmets and slit-trenches were forgotten and they conducted themselves like spectators at a prize-fight, and with some excuse, for the sight was magnificent.

The sky above Alexandria was lit up like a Christmas tree. Tinsel and gold baubles and coloured chains scintillated in the darkness, and one white moth of a bomber, the star of Bethlehem crowning the whole tree, was caught in a cat's cradle of searchlights. It was a spectacle that our drivers were to see many times before the war ended but never again would they see it with the same shock of surprise at its beauty, its savagery, its marvellous patterns.

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Lieutenant Moon, though, was not pleased. ‘In future,’ he said, ‘you'll use your slit-trenches. And Davies,11 I don't want any more running commentaries. Your name's not Gordon Hutter.’

Lieutenant Moon was a New Zealander to the core but he spoke with a soft drawl that suggested the Confederate States. When he abused them his chickens could almost hear the ice tinkling in the glasses of mint julep and the darkies singing in the plantations. (And when he called them his chickens, by the way, he meant very much what Long John Silver meant when he spoke of his lambs.) He had a gift for humorous exaggeration and he made full use of it. To appear on parade with the least suspicion of a sidewhisker was to invite the comment that there was no room in A Section for ‘any dam' John Bowles’, and the driver whose vehicle raised the smallest particle of dust in the area was promptly asked what had given him the idea that he was Segrave or Sir Malcolm Campbell. His chickens cursed him and they told stories against him—‘Yes,’ he was supposed to have said while testing one of the vehicles, ‘she certainly is runnin' mighty sick. When you get home just clean number three plug. Guess that'll fix her.’—but they laughed at his jokes and they would have followed him into any Balaclava-like situation you care to imagine if he had said to them, ‘Righti-o! Get weavin'.’ When he left them they gave him a silver cigarette case—and funds were low at the time.

After a week or so at Ikingi Maryut A Section moved up to El Daba, some forty miles east of Baggush, and there we can leave it for the time being.

Towards the end of September it seemed that another transport section might be needed in the Western Desert, for since the beginning of the month the greater part of the Division had been stationed there—mostly at Baggush, where defences were being constructed. Accordingly Major McGuire decided that Lieutenant Roberts's12 section should be acclimatised to the desert. A camp site was chosen about seven miles from Abbassia (out of reach of page 26 the sybaritic influence of the barracks and yet near enough for the section to continue with its Cairo Sub-area duties), and to this, on 26 September, Lieutenant Roberts and thirty-eight men moved with B Section's transport.

In spite of its voluptuous name, the Virgin's Breast (suggested to Arab geographers by the presence of two conical hills surmounted by stone cairns), the locality was sufficiently sandy and inhospitable to satisfy all requirements. As it was a toughening-up camp the drivers slept in their lorries, than which, surfeited as they were with tents and barrack-rooms, nothing could have suited them better. A wet canteen was established, and impromptu evening entertainments followed automatically. Nightly the Virgin's Breast (our drivers had a coarser name for it) vibrated to shouts and echoes robuster than any that had troubled its innocence through an eternity of passing caravans.

Time softens everything—buildings, bad liquor, memories. The bright enchanted islands—the excitements, the good times we had, the moving on crisp, sunny mornings through countries as strange to us as Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, the suppers of oyster fritters—these alone seem to stand out, whereas the dreary and bitter tasting sea in which they were pin-points only—the monotony, the homesickness, the recurrent feeling (did anyone quite escape it?) that one's individual efforts were doing rather less to win the war than those of the Man in the Moon—seemed misted over for the most part, and by mists rosy and luminous as from reflected sunsets. They were good times, though, and many of us can look back on those days at El Daba and the Virgin's Breast and say: ‘Those were the best times I had in the Army.’ Adding as a rider, of course: ‘Up till then.’

1 Meat and vegetable ration.

2 Dvr C. J. O'Brien; carpenter's apprentice; Cambridge; born Napier, 12 Jun 1919.

3 Dvr F. J. Wells; labourer; Manurewa; born NZ, 5 Jun 1914; wounded 27 Jun 1942.

4 Dvr C. P. Sanders; truck driver; Whangarei; born Dargaville, 22 Sep 1914.

5 We now had vehicles for an ammunition company planned to consist of Company headquarters (three officers and 69 ORs), three transport sections (A Section: two officers, 98 ORs, and four sub-sections with a total of 21 load-carriers; B Section: two officers, 89 ORs, and four sub-sections with a total of 19 load-carriers; C Section: ditto), and Workshops Section (one officer and 44 ORs). Total all ranks, less attachments: 399. Total vehicles, plus staff cars, motor-cycles, and Company headquarters, section headquarters, and Workshops' transport: 129.

6 Of 35 matches played in 1940 we won 27, drew 3, and lost 5.

7 S-Sgt E. J. Schonau; motor mechanic; Frankton Junction; born Kent, England, 23 Jun 1913.

8 Gnr T. H. Woodill; fellmonger; Te Papa, Auckland; born Taihape, 11 Nov 1911; wounded 4 Jul 1942.

9 Maj N. C. Moon, m.i.d.; commercial traveller; Takapuna, Auckland; born Auckland, 8 Feb 1912.

10 The two officers and 70 ORs of A Section took with ‘them only their correct establishment of transport, so the vehicles held for C Section were left without drivers. The situation was met by the attachment of one sergeant and 36 ORs from the RASC.

11 Dvr N. R. Davies; labourer; Paratu, Walton; born NZ, 21 May 1914.

12 Maj L. W. Roberts, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; clerk; Auckland; born Wellington, 4 Sep 1911; appointed OC 2 NZ Amn Coy, Jun 1943; OC 1 NZ Sup Coy, Sep 1945; Regular soldier; Assistant Director Supplies and Transport, Northern Military District.