“Our camp in the canal zone was a peaceful tented town. The tents were large marquees and every man had his own ‘charpoy’ with a straw mattress. It was luxury for those who had survived the mud of a Tunisian winter, the heat of an Italian summer, the snow and bleakness of the icy mountains of the Apennines. We had endured the dangers of the campaign from Cassino to Trasimene and normally slept under the stars, seldom with any cover. But there were not many left from those who had landed in Algiers in November 1942 to enjoy it. Within the battalion perimeter were a NAAFI, a central sergeants’ mess and a cinema with a frequent change of programmes.
Men were given seven days leave in Cairo. The brigade’s first leave party returned to camp and told how they had been ‘rooked’ by their hosts. The second contingent decided to do something and a well-organised riot was arranged with considerable damage to vehicles and installations. There were many arrests but not of a single London Irishmen. Colonel Bredin had the battalion paraded upon their return from Cairo and officially congratulated them on staying clear of trouble.
It may have been because of the Cairo riot that the division was broken into brigade units. The London Irish had been sent to Sidi Bishr to the east of Alexandria and into another tented camp. Leave was resumed. I had an excellent seven days in Alexandria but I would have dearly loved to have seen the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza. Stealing was rife and practically everything had to be closed down or tied down. The rifles were locked around the massive tent poles. One morning, a section awoke with no canvas above them. During the night, the tent had been removed by thieves who had stolen the poles and the rifles. Rifles had an easy market, particularly in Palestine. A South African officer named Lieutenant Bruckmann had all his kit, tent and even blankets stolen as he slept.
We were close to Stanley Bay, a resort on the Mediterranean. The sea was attractive and I spent my off-duty time swimming. One morning, I awoke with the most awful pain in my ears. It was so intense I even contemplated shooting myself. I reported sick and was rushed to the general hospital at Amariya where I was placed in an ear, nose and throat ward. After two days, I was transferred to a chest ward. I still had frequent treatment on my ears and was given antibiotics of some sort.
Rumour had it that the London Irish were to be sent to various places in the Middle East in the formation of the 9th and 10th Armies. One morning, Lieutenant Bruckmann called to see me in hospital. He told me the division was returning to Italy and asked if I was prepared to go. I was still in pain with my ears and a little groggy, but I started to dress while he went to see the sister. She dashed back and forced me back into bed and shouted to the officer, ‘Don’t you know that this man has pneumonia and is on the danger list.’ Poor Bruckmann stammered an apology and left hurriedly. My parents were shaken soon after when they received a telegram that began: ‘I regret Colour Sergeant E O’Sullivan is…’. They were relieved when it continued: ‘…seriously ill with pneumonia…’
Due to the seriousness of my illness, I was in a separate ward out of contact with any of the others until I was well enough to be mobile. I was treated as if I were a VIP and always addressed as Q (a polite abbreviation for quartermaster) or Mr O’Sullivan. I fell madly in love with my night sister, an Australian in her thirties. I wrote her a poem, which I handed to her diffidently. The matron visited me daily and I was often questioned about the front-line. God knows what Bruckmann had said about me. A civilian lady came round with library books when I was well enough to read. I chose Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C Douglas. It tells the story of a man who is resuscitated after a boating accident in which a doctor dies. The survivor decides to devote his life to making up for the doctor’s life and eventually becomes a doctor himself. This I read several times. It seemed to change my ideas about life.
After a couple of weeks, I was allowed up and reported each Monday to be weighed. My weight was seven stone thirteen pounds. I was immediately put on a special diet to build me up. For the next three weeks, I was fed and observed. But each Monday there was no change; not an ounce increase in weight. They were reluctant to discharge me. I was given the daily task in the pathology laboratory of filing and recording documents relating to patients’ illnesses and deaths. Meanwhile, I made friends with the Irish Brigade chaps in the main ward. All had pneumonia with otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear). There were over 30 there. Good old Stanley Bay, the Mediterranean resort which nearly killed us due to pollution.”