In Sidi Bishr

My last story ended, if you remember, with our arrival in the Middle East for a period of rest and training. I touched very lightly on events of that time on account of security. As I said, we arrived on the 23rd July in the most abominable place called Qassassin. It was accurately described as the cream of the “F.A. country”. It was just a howling wilderness and a very hot and dusty one at that. The only redeeming feature of Qassassin was that it was about half an hour’s run to Ismalia. Ismalia had improved a lot in the last 15 years or so. There an was excellent sailing club on the lake, the officer’s club was quite pleasant; and there was a French and Greek club too. You could have quite a pleasant and cool afternoon there sailing and swimming and spend the rest of the evening in one of these clubs.

The big idea was that when the leave had been completed, we should go to Palestine and Syria for two or three months and do some proper training. This was a novel idea. Since we came abroad, opportunities for training had been practically non existent, with the exception of six weeks after the fall of Tunis.

In spite of our victories during the preceding months, or possibly owing to them, we were in much need of training as we had turned over a lot of men. It was obvious ridiculous to train in the flat desert for fighting in Italy, which is either mountainous or very fertile and in every way the extreme opposite. We were told that conditions in Syria would be reasonably near the mark. However, all this proved too good to be true. We hadn’t been in the country a fortnight before we were told we had got to go back to Italy as soon as possible. The war was going to finish or something of that kind. If we didn’t hurry, we might be too late. Probably the real reason had something to do with the decision to send a useful proportion of the Armies in Italy to land on the pleasant beaches of the French Riviera. Fortunately, “as soon as possible” was in about a month’s time. As that month went on with its tide of good news on the Western front, people really did begin to think we might get stuck in Egypt if the war ended too quickly. By the middle of August, everyone was getting quite keen to go. A protracted stay in the Middle East appealed to no one.

It was obviously no good going to Palestine or Syria now. We wouldn’t be there before we had to turn round and come back again. Any useful training had, therefore, been knocked on the head already. I was determined that we should employ the remaining month usefully and, if we couldn’t train in a serious way, we could at any rate enjoy ourselves thoroughly given the right surroundings and a little money.

I had spent three years in Egypt as a subaltern in the Faughs and had some local knowledge, therefore, of what the enjoyment form was, and where the best places to go might be at that time of the year. When we were invited to remain in Qassassin for our last month, I reacted fairly violently. This resulted in arrangements being made for us to go to Sidi Bishr, about 5 miles along the coast from Alexandria. The 2nd Skins were already in the camp and either they had to come to us or we had to go to them. The latter appeared the obvious alternative and we were not long in bringing it about. We only had a tented camp at Sidi Bishr but that was all we had had at Qassassin anyway, so we were no worse. The sea was only about five minutes walk away and the flesh pots of Alexandria about 15 minutes in a car.

I had already made friends with Fred Bowsher, the Area Commander, and he and his staff did everything they could to get things going well. Their cooperation extended in many directions. After we had been there about a week, his DPM came to see me and told me of a variety of irregularities that were being performed by all ranks. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me that the Area Commander had sent him round to see me with the object of making some convenient arrangements suitable to both parties. After the stories, probably exaggerated, of unreasonable officiousness, which I had heard, of the Cairo ‘Redcaps’, this was a refreshing attitude. We came to the conclusion that the worst offence that anyone could commit was that of being found out. In other words, it was necessary that we should cover our tracks somewhat. Cars used to visit ‘dives’ in Alexandria must not, for instance, be parked at the door. Fair civilian partners, necessary for an evening’s entertainment, must not be seen in Government cars. Therefore, none should be given lifts in daylight. With those, and a few other commonsense rules, we never had any trouble in offending against the local laws.

The whole sea front at Alexandria is covered for miles with bathing huts. These places were very useful. Some were available for soldiers. Most of us soon acquired friends who owned one. Someone kindly lent me one. The only snag about these places was that they were not allowed to be used after dark and this rule was enforced by very militant looking Egyptian policemen, who were inclined to ‘brass off’ at the least provocation. However, we observed the rules and had a lot of amusing bathing parties.

One morning, I was greeted by the news that about thirty members of the brigade, on leave in Cairo, had been locked up by the Military Police and that more than twice that number from the division were also in the ‘cooler’. This was the first information that I had about the “Cairo Riots”. It took some time to find out what was really going on. We soon discovered that those locked up were some of the more respectable members of society and that apparently no charge had been furnished against them. We invoked the ‘habeas corpus’ act and got them out. Various garbled versions of their exploits reached us ahead of them. When the delinquents arrived, it became clear that there had been no ordinary party. It was also evident that those who had been locked up had merely been on the fringe of the activities. Each leave party had brought back a story of villainy of the local inhabitants of Cairo. Some had their pockets picked. Some were deliberately robbed, Everyone was greatly overcharged. The attitude of many shop keepers was insulting. Shoe shine boys threw blacking on soldiers’ trousers. There were a variety of annoyances of this description. Resentment of their treatment and of failure to put it right had produced a strong reaction against these blackguards for their attitude towards the division, who had recently chased the Germans from Cassino to Lake Trasimene.

Enquiry showed that some mastermind was directing activities on this August day, or rather night, for everybody appeared to be working to a Zero Hour of 8pm. All the more villainous haunts had parties told off to deal with them. The shoe-shine boys were liquidated. Fun and games went on in a variety of places and ways for an hour or two, but like an Irish affray, there was no evidence against anybody. It seemed that nobody had actually done any of these things themselves. We all received a justifiable rebuke, but there is no doubt about it, that all soldiers wearing the Battle Axe were treated with much more respect in Cairo after the exploit. Later, I received the congratulations of three Admirals, and an Air Marshal on the inconspicuous but apparently effective part, which some soldiers wearing hackles had taken in this business. They considered such treatment was long overdue. Of course, they didn’t understand the needs of military discipline, which must frown on an organised disorder.

Life in Alexandria had no violent scenes and everyone pursued the even tenor of their way; even, though exhausting. Everyone did a certain amount of shooting on ranges and field firing in the desert. There were a few repercussions from this. The Skins succeeded in shooting some camels. They also shot a local inhabitant, whose mother proclaimed that his death was the will of Allah – which saved a lot of trouble. Various people came and lectured us. We held Sand Model exercises, attended sometimes by the Egyptian Army, who I don’t think understood a word of what was going on. And then in the evening, the serious work of the day began.

The London Irish and the Faughs had some very successful parties in their camps, usually attended by a fine display of Wrens. Various people had violent, though usually short lived, love affairs. We got to know girls of every nationality; some of such mixed origin that it was questionable whether they had any nationality at all. I was told that the really dangerous thing was to meet anybody, who claimed to be French. I met one myself, who must have been an exception to the rule. There were fair Russians, Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Malts, Egyptians, not so fair, Levantines and every sort of permutation and combination that one might get from mixing all the above together.

The head policeman’s wife, a most hospitable lady called Mrs Baker Pasha – an Armenian – used to hold dances twice a week, to which were bidden a fine selection of the gay young things of Alexandria. Here, for a small consideration, one might enter her cool and pleasant garden and be introduced to as many cheerful maidens as time and opportunity permitted. We used to lend the pipers occasionally to join these festivities. The great attraction of Mrs Baker’s parties, apart from the fairies there, was that they were out of doors, and therefore reasonably cool. On other nights, she used to entertain anything up to 200 soldiers in one invitation.

There were two racecourses and a meeting was held every week. The Pipes and Drums used to play occasionally. Most of the betting was on the tote, which took 25 per cent – an arrangement very much on the basis of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’, as far as the committee was concerned. Some people made an occasional scoop, but I think, more often than not, they were out of pocket.

The food in the restaurants was the best I have struck since the war began. People began to get particular after a bit and one night a distinguished member of my Headquarters took exception to his food. It was supposed to be some choice sort of steak, as indeed it actually was, but unfortunately he had eaten so much already that he couldn’t face it. The problem was how to avoid paying for it. This astute businessman hit on the bright idea of assorting that the joint in question was really a cut off a camel and he proposed taking it away to be analysed. This so frightened the management that they struck it off his bill at once.

From every point of view, it was diffcult there ever was or ever had been a war. One was sometimes reminded that there was a war because it was used as an excuse for some tremendous ball, in aid of a warlike charity. These balls were on an entirely pre war level and one felt very tired after them the next day. Very often, the prices charged for drinks were also very much on a charity basis. The big hearted Scotsman in my Headquarters, after inviting a few of his friends up to the bar for a ‘wee doch and doris’ was confronted with a bill of no less than £5. History does not relate whether he gave the drinks back or not.

On the 20th August, nearly three weeks before we left, they started to take our transport away to send by special convoy back to Italy. This was most disturbing as it cramped peoples’ style a good deal.

However, we managed to borrow, beg and steal odd vehicles from here and there to keep the night life fairly mobile. One saw such spectacles as Paddy Bowen Colthurst arriving in the ten bob car park at the races sharing a 3 tonner with his West African driver. Similar parties used to arrive outside restaurant and dance places. I don’t think anybody was seriously stopped from following his unlawful pursuits.

About this time, General Butterworth was appointed to command the Division and he paid us his only visit in Egypt on the 24th.

General Paget, the Commander in Chief, came to see us on the 31st August. He spent the whole day going round the brigade and seemed to enjoy his visit very much. He has a passion for military bands, I discovered afterwards and I had just got everything on the right footing by inviting him to watch the Pipes and Drums at practice when he arrived. He was delighted with them.

While we were in Egypt, a lot of Immediate Awards came through, covering the advance from Cassino. I shall add an Appendix at the end for the decorations won during this period.

Father Dan Kelleher organised a Brigade Boxing Contest against the RAF, who were supposed to be pretty good in these parts. We won six fights out of eight – a most successful outcome.

By this time, the financial situation was tolling heavily on everyone. Every sort of resource had been practised to raise money, and ingenuity was just about exhausted as was the field cashier, so perhaps it was just as well that we should return to Italy.

I left Alexandria with John McLinton on 3rd September and flew to Bari on the 5th. We left at one in the morning after a fairly heavy night and most people slept in uncomfortable angles on the unyielding floor of the Dakota until our stop for breakfast at a ghastly place called Marble Arch. We eventually reached our destination at about 430pm.

The brigade embarked on the 9th September and sailed on the 11th, reaching Taranto on the 15th.

Read ‘Back to Italy’.

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