Monday, 26 July 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part One

Warning: This post consists of personal reminiscences, and is therefore of no interest whatsoever to anyone except my family and close friends, and very little to them. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, though the chances are that these are all dead.

Two years into a degree course I was asked to leave University College London, mainly because I was no good with Meccano. This meant that my deferment from National Service expired and I was invited to carry out two years of it. I didn't mind much because I hadn't been enjoying myself learning to be a Mechanical Engineer.

During basic training I applied to be sent on a WOSB (War Office Selection Board for Officer Cadet School). I wanted to be an officer, not from any inflated ideas about my leadership qualities but because I rather fancied myself in the hat, with, under my arm, the little stick they give you, presumably for striking recalcitrant private soldiers lightly on the face to enforce discipline. And anyway, I suspected that many junior officers are asses and that I would not have much difficulty in keeping up with them. I must have explained this rather badly, because the members of the board smiled gently and suggested that it might be better for everyone if I finished my training and then became a driver, or something.

In a fit of pique I volunteered to be sent abroad as soon as they had taught me to drive; I was not seeking adventure but merely thought that spending the rest of my two years military duties in some exotic spot might be more enjoyable than languishing in Aldershot. The choices were limited to Korea, where there was a war going on, and Egypt, where a General Neguib (Nasser's predecessor) was being disrespectful to us.

I chose Egypt and was quickly despatched to a Field Bakery unit at Ismailia on the Suez canal. There I shared a tent with five other conscripts. I had little in common with them but after initial suspicion they decided that I was harmless and they treated me with an amused contempt. Actually, we became good friends; I helped them with writing letters to their wives and girl friends and they treated me as a sort of mascot, calling me 'Perfessor'.

They were a colourful bunch of characters but only two stay in my memory: Paddy Reilly, who thought 'the murtherin' British' ought to leave Ireland forthwith, and Filthy MacDonald, whose speciality when dealing with men who did not share his opinions was 'gi'ing 'em the heid'. I taught him a bit about writing and he taught me a bit about how to use a shiv.

The unit was equipped with AEC Matadors, 10-ton diesel trucks used for pulling mobile ovens when we drove out into the desert and baked 50,000 loaves for practice, or at other times for carrying loads of dough-encrusted 'whites' down the canal road to the laundry. They rather optimistically let me drive one, but not for long; to change gear you had to put both hands on the gearstick, brace your foot against the dashboard and heave. I was no good at all at this sort of thing and was soon transferred to the company office as a clerk.

There I had nothing much to do; I practised calligraphy with my letters home and filled in the time with little jobs like making out a Certificate of Competence to Drive for myself and getting it signed; of course I had had a test after my driver training, but this was given by the man who had taught me, and he wasn't going to fail anybody, was he? So, quite reasonably, you had to get the army to confirm that you could drive in order to obtain a civilian driving license, and this I was happy to do for myself.

And so the days wore on. It wasn't a bad life really, though some found it so: some sad boy in a neighbouring unit couldn't stand it and one day ran amok with a sten gun, killing several of his fellow-conscripts. I heard that Albert Pierrepoint, then nearing retirement, was flown out to hang him, but I couldn't confirm that this was true.

I learned a few words of Arabic, none of which were of the slightest use to me in later years when I had to visit the Middle East frequently. There were also songs which we sang in raucous chorus: some of these were slanders on the private life of the Egyptian royals at the time, King Farouk and Queen Farida, while others were sentimental ballads with such refrains as You're My Little Gyppo Bint, You're Kuwayyis Ketir. These were mere fantasies, for penned up in our camps we never encountered any local beauties, and for most of us romance of any kind was just a dream: at that time there were 30,000 British troops in the Suez Canal Zone, so the few dozen NAAFI girls also serving there were not short of offers of one kind or another.

[Continued HERE. The next instalment will include what the brigadier said to his children and how my mother made the CO look a complete prat, which he was.]


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