It all started - as things usually do - with a letter addressed to me (Alan E Gilham) shortly after my eighteenth birthday. It contained an invitation from His Majesty's Government to attend at Whittington Barracks near Lichfield on the 1st January 1948, and asked "Did I have any objections?". As I was not in a reserved occupation how could I object? Later on, after a cursory medical with a local doctor, a travel document arrived with train details and a travel pass.
January 1st was a Thursday and I - as was normal in those days - had worked up to the end of December only having had Christmas and Boxing Day as holiday. Fortunately the day was mild and dry and I left home round about 9am, my mother went out to clean the front windows and I sneaked out round the back so that there would be no tearful goodbyes on her part. I walked to Stoke station and caught the specified train together with quite a number of other youths. On arrival at Lichfield station we were met by several NCOs from the South Staffordshire Regiment and two three-ton trucks into which we were bundled for the journey to the barracks. This was to be the first of many journeys like this either hanging on for grim death or slouching on the floor and sides.
On arrival we were stood in line and marched to our barrack room which was devoid of anything but empty frame beds with mess tins laid on them and wooden wall lockers, whatever we had brought with us in the way of toilet gear was put into the lockers and we then "stood by our beds" and waited till our troop sergeant appeared who duly took down our names, it turned out that his name was Bilham and we entered into a strained relationship from the first. We then had our first experience of foot drill as we were marched off to the cookhouse for a midday meal (dinner in those days). Foot drill was no problem to me and many of my compatriots as a lot of us had been in organisations like the Church Lads Brigade and similar, but many did not know their left from their right causing quite a few observations from our barrack room corporal. We learned about the cookhouse routine of having your mess tin being filled with food ladled in from a height of several inches causing the unsuspecting to lose their grip on the handle when such delights as a "dollop" of potato hit it with force. When the meal was over mess tins had to be rinsed in a communal bowl of lukewarm greasy water, cleaned and ready inspection. Later that same day we were taken to the Quartermaster's store and drew out three "biscuits" - these formed our mattress - and two blankets and two sheets. We also were fitted with uniforms and new boots; since the store personnel just gave you what size they thought would fit there was much swapping about of trousers etc. until most were reasonably dressed. That evening, after tea, we had to parcel up our civilian clothes and send them home and learn how to shine up your boots, blanco your belt and get a shine on your brass buckles.
The next day began in earnest, reveille at 6am, shave, perform your "ablutions", have breakfast and assemble on the parade ground at 8am ready for two hours of foot drill. Then there was a "NAAFI" break and continue till dinner time, and back on the parade ground for the rest of the afternoon. Evenings were always spent cleaning your kit or the barrack room or fatigues. Since I would not let Sergeant Bilham get at me I always got the worst fatigues such as polishing the brassware in the urinals and scrubbing the floor in the officers' mess. Later came the issuing of rifles, short magazine Lee Enfields, and rifle drill ad infinitum until that marvellous day when we were marched to the ranges and actually fired ten rounds each. I think I scored reasonably well although references to my pay book record of " tests of elementary training" dosn't substantiate this. Then we took our turn in the butts in order to signal where the shots landed in the target, there is always some clever person who uses your signalling stick as a target when you stick it up causing everybody to duck down and swear.
After rifle drill etc. came the Bren gun and we went through all the drills on changing barrels, stripping it down and reassembling until we could do it in the dark. I won a barrack room competition on how quickly I could load the magazine on the gun, fire, clear an imaginary jam and commence firing again. Going to the ranges with the Bren Gun gave Sergeant Bilham great delight as I had to put the gun on my shoulder, hold an ammunition box with the other hand another guy holding the other side of the box and in double time we went to our firing point. I found that firing the Bren was easy as there was hardly any recoil and I could obtain a good grouping on the target.
During the above activity there was a requirement to parade outside the medical block and receive the first of many "shots" for typhus A and B, cholera, smallpox and a Schick test, the latter was having the delight of having two needles stuck into your forearms, lack of reaction showed you were free from TB. Having all these vaccinations done in the space of about ten minutes caused several bodies to crash to the ground and I have to admit I was very nearly one of them, according to my old army pay book this was on the 2nd January.
There was also a lot of physical training during these six weeks of primary training, the usual 3 miles route march with full kit, but fortunately no extra weight in the form of ammunition, then immediately after that a half mile run without respite, all this was quite a stress on a lot of the men, some of them coming from very poor backgrounds.
A weekend leave at Easter was granted (25th March - 30th March) and I remember enjoying it, I could walk the dog and go out with some old school friends who were waiting to be called up. Then there was also a seven days mid training leave during which invites were given to families to attend a passing out parade at Lichfield.
This passing out parade date duly arrived. We spent a lot of time practising drills etc. until the NCOs were satisfied. The actual day was damp and was very nearly the cause of an accident, we had fixed bayonets and then the order to slope arms came and my hand slipped on the rifle which started to come up at an angle towards the back of the man in front of me, with my left hand I managed to stop this and performed the rest of the manoeuvre without incident. The rest of the parade was judged by all and sundry to be a success and my mother was very proud.
The highlight of this time was the fact that I refused to allow my sergeant to get the better of me and in one incident when we were having a silent battle of minds he actually called me a "moronic robot" a phrase I remember with pride as having caused him to resort to abuse. On reflection I think this antipathy was caused by me being highly indignant by having to run round a gas chamber without my mask for two turns instead of the one we were told about, the sergeant keeping his mask on all the while.
We were all called into the troop commander's office to be given a choice of Regiment or Corps to be posted to; I was given the choice of the Household Cavalry or the Royal Signals as a telephone lineman, thinking of all the ceremonies etc. I would have to do I chose the latter. I was given the shoulder flashes to sew on and a travel pass to Richmond (Yorkshire) for the next Monday. Another reason for choosing the Signals was that tradesmen earned at least another shilling a day, which would make it more than the basic three shillings a day which ordinary privates got.
Arriving at Catterick we were put into asbestos huts - like Nissen huts but not as substantial - and called Mons lines (all the lines were named after first world war battles) and told the course we were to attend would not begin until the next week so we were to get our fatigues unpacked and be general dogsbodies. I drew a session on the Catterick golf course, which was fun, playing with a tractor, very dangerously as I recall, and keeping the greens clean. We subsisted on "haversack rations" collected from the cookhouse every morning, together with whatever one could beg, borrow or steal in the way of extras, potatoes for putting on a bonfire and any leftovers from the day before, it was cold and we were very hungry.
The next week we started the course and I eventually became a D3 assistant lineman on the 1st May 1948 halfway to becoming a fully-fledged B3 lineman. During this time I was promoted to a lance corporal, this was not substantive and I lost it on leaving Catterick. We were also moved into new accommodation in Le Cateau lines.
My main duties were to march the squad to and from the parade ground and lecture rooms and to perform what was known as "canteen cowboy" i.e. keeping order in the NAAFI during break times, when I had to do full days I got plenty of undisturbed practise on the snooker table.
During May the weather turned abnormally cold, so much so, that yours boots literally stuck to the parade ground if you remained in one spot. Everybody went to sleep with vest and pants on and your greatcoat put on top of the blanket. There was a stove in the middle of the hut but no fuel until we managed to scrounge some coal, it didn't throw out much heat at all. There was a minimal amount of hot water for shaving in the morning, but no hot water for showers etc. I finally managed a very cold shower in desperation after about a month of skimpy washes.
Being an ever so junior NCO I had to have my back pack and ammunition pouches all square and symmetrical, luck favoured me here in that the carpenter was an old school friend of mine, by name Ernie Byatt, who said he could very easily put a thin plywood inner frame in them, if I provided the ply wood, which I did by visiting an empty hut one night and carrying away a wooden locker on my shoulder past the Orderly Officer, who took no notice of me, into the carpenters shop where good old Ernie carved it up exceptionally accurately for me and disposed of any incriminating evidence. I threw them all away when I left Catterick as not being necessary. I also used lead weights on a piece of string to pull my trousers down over the gaiters in a "regimental fashion"
There was a guard duty to do that was disliked by everyone; it was at the School of Signals. Being the HQ of the Corps it was a "regimental" guard; everything had to be just so, greatcoat pleated correctly, webbing and gaiters freshly "blancoed" and brasses polished and boots shone until they looked like mirrors. The rifles also had to have the treatment, the wood being highly polished so everything looked like new. You had to salute every officer by sloping arms and slapping the rifle butt smartly, when they were above the rank of major you had to present arms, fortunately this was a daytime guard only and I only did it once.
Tensions ran a little high as one might guess in this environment, one night someone fixed one of the guy's beds so that it collapsed when he got into it, and he tried to take it out on me with a rifle butt. Fortunately being used to wrestling with my schoolmates I managed to subdue him and put him in a headlock until he calmed down. I did not charge him for attacking an NCO. Things settled down after that. There was a chap who came into my section, whose name I can't remember but he was known as "Angel"
because he came from the Angel Islington. He was forever being slung into the guardhouse for being insubordinate. His demobilisation group was 108, mine was 125, so he should have left the army by that time, for some strange reason we took to each other and I persuaded him to be sensible about things and covered up for him in one of his escapades. He managed to steer clear of conflict until I left Catterick when I lost track of him. I often think of him and wonder what eventually became of him.
During this time (May) we went out on the Yorkshire Moors to set up some telegraph poles and connect them all up, one section had to have an overhead cable strung between the poles supported by a steel wire on which was put a small chair pulled along by a rope. The idea was to put clips on the wire to hold the cable; the problem was that this provided much "amusement" by the chair being pulled from pole to pole at a great rate of knots with its occupant having to hold on for grim death, this together with using climbing irons on poles which had had so much traffic up them they were like shredded wheat meant that many splinters and bruises were received during this exercise. These exercises made one exceptionally hungry and many raids were made on the cook house, returning to camp one night I remember finding some cold rice pudding with sultanas in it, filled two mess tins with it, took it back to the hut and several of us had really full stomachs that night. One day two of us were collecting items left behind from previous exercises when we stumbled across an old POW camp still being used for that purpose, mostly being occupied by Italians who wanted to stay in UK, the cook provide us each with two enormous slices of corned beef dipped in batter and placed between two slices of bread which was at that time a taste of sheer heaven.
After this we took a course in making cable joints, sweating joints with blowlamps and discovering that the Army fatigue dress was quite flameproof, people who were caught bending over sometimes had a blowlamp applied which soon straightened them up. Somehow we all managed to pass the course successfully.
I managed to get a pass for Whitsuntide Leave (14th to 18th June). I did not manage to get leave for Eric's wedding. The trains at this time were always unreliable and slow (what's new) and I could not get any further that day (14th) than Stafford so commenced to walk to Stone, it was about 8am after a few miles a kind motorist picked me up and dropped me off in Stoke. On returning to Catterick the train, as usual, was crowded but I managed to find a space on the corridor floor and sat down and nodded off I awoke when the train started to slow down to stop at York. When I woke I found that I was sitting by a very pretty girl and my head was on her shoulders, somewhat disconcerted by this I stumbled out an apology, she just smiled, got up, collected her case and got out of the train to be met by an Army Captain. I often wondered who she was. Train journeys were always a hazard in those days; you never knew what was going to happen or how long the journey was going to take.
On the 19th July 1948 I became a fully-fledged B3 lineman, moved to a transit camp in Ripon to await posting abroad somewhere then send on embarkation leave from the 23rd June to 8th July. Back to the camp in Ripon we had no real duties to perform so we swam in the river Ure, looked at the orders every day and hoped for a good posting. Some people were sent off to exotic places like Washington and other Embassies, but others less lucky were to go to Palestine, West Africa and other places like that. Five others and myself were to go to Benghazi and later, after a very long train journey ending up at the famous Lime Street Station; we dutifully embarked on the SS Staffordshire at Princes Wharf Liverpool.
On board we were ushered to our mess deck, instructed on how to sling a hammock, where to stack our kit bags and where the galley was. The next day we cast off and sailed, there were no bands or waving crowds, it was just another troop ship sailing off.
There were daily drills on assembling at your lifeboat stations, putting on your life jackets and getting to know the ships layout. We sailed with a battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and they had a very callow 1st lieutenant who explained to his men that the bows were "the pointed end of the ship" causing us to have a little snigger
The food on board ship was very good, not only were there the usual three meals but an additional one, afternoon tea, which consisted of freshly baked bread and jam, we went through the Bay of Biscay without incident, the weather being clear and warm, apart from the routine drills we had no other duties so we could lounge about on deck, play cards and have games of tombola. I used to get out on deck as soon as I could so I could see the land we were passing with white painted houses just discernable in the far distance and the dolphins playing around the bows. One day we spotted a swarm of "flying fish" skimming over the water behaving just like small dolphins. The voyage was not without incident, suddenly when we were off the coast of Spain the ship's alarm bells began to ring and the ship veered round and the engines stopped, several men with rifles appeared on deck and aimed at an object in the sea which eventually turned out to be an old packing case in the water and not as was suspected an old floating mine.
I only remember one chap who was seasick, he was in a terrible state, he was found under a pile of spare hammocks nearly dead and was rushed of to the sick bay, he eventually got over it.
We passed the Rock of Gibraltar and in to the Mediterranean and on toward Malta, I tried one night to sleep out on deck to get away from the closely packed decks below, (two feet between hammocks), this was not a success as one blanket was not sufficient to keep the cold out and a steel deck is quite hard.
Entering the Grand Harbour Valetta in Malta was quite an impressive sight seeing what was left of the brickwork put up by the Knights Templar when they held the island in I think about the 1400AD mark. We, that is, all the Signals personnel, dutifully disembarked leaving the Fusiliers to go on to Egypt. The transit camp was about three miles out of Valetta through Silema Creek to a place we knew as St. Georges bay, looking at a modern map it now seems to be known as Soldiers bay. A Maltese driver, whose driving skills were reprehensible, conveyed us there in a three-ton truck; to put it mildly this woke us all up!!
This transit camp consisted of rows of scruffy huts on bare earth surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. The one entrance was tightly controlled by military police who logged you in and out as well as making sure you were properly dressed. We later found out that the CSM who ran the camp had been posted there from the Colchester glasshouse where he was reprimanded for cruelty to the prisoners.
This was the first time we put on our previously issued khaki drill shirts, shorts and hose tops, now hose tops were a remarkable invention consisting of a footless long sock which you put on your legs first, then you put on a normal short sock and then your boots, your gaiters then went on covering the gap between hose top and boot, the end result was that you appeared to be wearing long khaki socks!!
We had started to take of our shirts on board ship and by now we all had the start of an overall tan except one of the chaps, by name of Bernard Hartley who had very fair skin and was prone to sunburn. He came from St. Ives in Cornwall and years later we met there.
This camp was remarkable for two things, salty water and latrines which consisted of long bench with twelve holes and a semicircular trough running underneath with constant sea water flowing down it. During morning "ablutions" it was common practise to set fire to a paper boat and send it down the trough and watch everyone there suddenly jump up in sequence as the flame seared their backsides. I was only caught once. The salt in the drinking water was the biggest nuisance and we all volunteered for fatigues which took you to the other side on the island where you could get fresh water, you took as many canteens as you could with you to fill up. One chap thought that he could use Andrew's Liver Salts to disguise the taste and thought it was great until the combined effects caused great upheavals of his bowels!!
After two weeks we were given orders to be on parade at 4am to get a boat to go on to Tripoli in Libya, not Benghazi as our original destination was. A chap I had palled up with by name "Bomber" Bates - I don't recall his first name - and I decided to have the night out and explore the island prior to embarkation, so we sneaked out under the fence and went into Valletta.
We wandered around the streets of Valetta and outside a grand building - its name I never knew - there was parked a small car with its key in the ignition, my companion could drive - he was a vehicle mechanic - I walked down the street and kept a lookout and he released the hand brake and coasted down the hill and I got in, the motor was started and we went for a ride around all the places we had not been before. After two to three hours we decided to return to camp and got within half a mile or so, parked the car in a side track, as I got out I saw some paperwork in the side pocket and had a read, what we read made us replace everything and run like hell back under the wire and innocently to bed. The car belonged to the Provost Marshall of Malta!!!
Next day we passed the place where had parked the car the previous night round about 11pm and saw that it was gone, it was now 6 o'clock in the morning and we were heading to the harbour to embark on our boat to Tripoli. We made a pact that when we returned to Malta we would take a "dhyso" (water taxi) out of the harbour and see Malta by sea. I'm glad we split up later on; I could still be in jail!
Our ship was an ex Air Sea rescue vessel, small and fast, with only sufficient accommodation for about 30 people, we took it in turns to get food from the galley and take it into the mess. It was my turn to get breakfast the next morning and I picked up a tray of sausages and tomatoes and a large container of porridge, placed the tray at the bottom of the stairway and took the porridge up, at the top of the stairs the boat suddenly lurched and I grabbed the handrail the container of porridge went flying, most of it over the sausages. I went to try and find something to clean up the mess and when I returned, a miracle had occurred, someone else had cleaned it up, I think that it was a crew member who did it as there was to be a ships inspection that morning. I was very careful with the replacements. Later when we were hanging over the bows I saw the cause of the problem, the bows were stove in and bent sideways and any side wave hitting it caused a sudden lurch. I later learned that the ship had hit a wreck in Benghazi harbour a few weeks before.
We disembarked and were taken about a mile and a half out of the main town to an elegant marble structure built by the Italians (pre-war) called Marina Barracks that was to be home for the next seven months.
Tripoli was a good posting, during the summer heat you were dismissed after the two o'clock works parade and unless anything else was scheduled you could go swimming in the beautiful clear sea water, that is unless you swam across to the wrecks in the harbour where you could easily get coated with fuel oil, only once did this happen, it took a long and painful session in the showers to get it off.
We were paid in Military Authority Lira, and to our joy we had a local overseas allowance of sixpence a day, later in Egypt it was ten pence a day.
The next thing we knew we were doing combined operations training spending some time with the Grenadier Guards at their camp scaling 20ft walls using nets to simulate a ships side. You had a full pack and a Sten gun - not loaded, thank goodness as they had a reputation for suddenly discharging after a knock. One chap dropped his Sten and I had to pause to listen to a Guards sergeant major describing this poor chaps ancestry, I don't think he repeated himself once in five minutes.
After this it was getting into a landing craft with fifty other men and many reels of cable, going out to sea and then running on to the beach gather up your Sten and one side of a reel of cable, run like blazes on to the beach and lay out the communications lines for the Beach master. I realized that this would be a dangerous activity if an enemy was firing at you at the time and learned later that during the war linemen in the Royal Signals had a large casualty rate!!!
They found out that I had had some typing training and I was asked to go into the troop office, this I did and found it to be a good move. I worked with a Captain Taylor who was seconded from the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry to the Signals and we got on famously.
One advantage working the troop office was that I did not do any other duties and went straight from the first works parade to the office to commence typing out orders for the next day. I was not scheduled to go on the combined operations exercise that we had trained for, as someone had to look after the troop office whilst Captain Taylor was away leading the troop, when they all returned several days later and I listened to some of the things that had transpired I was glad I had had a few really quiet and lazy days.
Among the Arabic words we learned was the word "ghibli". There was a forces newspaper called the Sunday Ghibli the word was roughly translated as wind. It wasn't until one arrived around about October time that we knew what it was. It was a wind from inland that brought dust storms that clogged your nose and stung your eyes, got into the food no matter what you did to avoid it and was generally an unpleasant experience.
With the advantage of extra pay, I managed to make two really worthwhile trips, one to see Leptis Magna, an old Roman city to the East of Tripoli, and was fortunate enough to have as a tour guide an Italian archaeologist who had taken part in the rebuilding of the site pre-war, the city having been subjected to an earthquake round about 600AD. The other trip was to a place called Garian, inland and up in the mountains. This was a remarkable trip, for the journey was across desert for the first part and then the road went up into the mountains, it was very narrow and had many hairpin bends but fortunately no one else seemed to be using it.
When we arrived at Garian we went to an Italian hotel and had a meal of spaghetti topped with Parmesan cheese, which because we were unwise in the ways of the world caused us great hilarity in trying to cope with removing it from plate to mouth. I remember the air was sparkling fresh and the starry night was exceptionally clear and bright. The next day we visited an underground village, well the houses were really caves built in great pits about 20 to 30 feet deep. The Emir came out and we were escorted down a long ramp to view one interior, I would imagine that the temperature would be pretty constant and comfortable all year round. Many years later in India at a neurology seminar I was talking to a neurologist and his wife who had done the trip when he was in the RAMC and she was a nurse, this gave us quite a good talking point.
Being in the troop office I had the task of writing up the orders for the sports day afternoon, by this time I had retired from playing cricket for the Signals because of receiving a cricket ball in the face whilst playing wicketkeeper. So I arranged to have driving lessons from my pal "Bomber" Bates and we spent several afternoons with me driving around Tripoli. One day, after nearly taking the gates of the sports field, we stopped and talked to one of the Arab ground staff in a mixture of Italian, Arabic and English. He was grateful to the British for looking after him when the Italians wounded him during the push from El Alamein.
There was an old seaplane base in the harbour where an occasional guard was required; this was an easy duty since all it required was someone to be there overnight and report in at occasional intervals. I did this only once, which was a great pity. When the ration truck pulled with my evening meal I had enough to feed several people, so I spoke to an Arab watchman who had a hut further down the jetty and gave him the remainder of the food. Later he invited me into his hut to partake of a few cups of strong, sweet tea and to meet his family who were devouring the now ex-army rations. Looking back I can't remember any of the Libyan people being hostile - quite a difference to the Egyptians!!
Around the end of September we had an influx of personnel who were moving out of Palestine, their tales of the atrocities committed by the Jewish terrorists were grim. Despatch riders had to watch out for wire strung between trees, several were apparently decapitated. The same applied to commanders of Dingo armoured cars who learned the hard way to keep their heads in the vehicle. As usual there was a reverse side of the coin inasmuch as that there were illegal transactions taking place with the military equipment that was to have been destroyed.
November the 11th 1948 and we had a grand parade and service with all the troops in the region, among them the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, we had lost to them in a tug-of-war match earlier and we were not going to be bettered at marching and foot drill, so we practised and practised until we were as near perfect as we could be. All our Khaki Drill was washed and scrubbed, carefully folded and placed on a towel under our "biscuits" and slept on. If all went well they would have good creases in them. The day of the parade arrived and all went well; we were complimented on our turn out by the Brigadier, we all felt very satisfied that day.
Christmas arrived and we had what the army calls "gunfire" brought round to us by the troop sergeant at six in the morning. Gunfire was tea with a liberal portion of whiskey mixed into it. I later walked into Tripoli and attended a communion service being held in a small chapel in the thick walls of the old fortress, it was an impressive service, with only about 8 participants and has stuck in my mind because of that. Later that day I disgraced myself by drinking too much of the local variety of Marsala, brewed from wood alcohol I think, getting into the back of a truck going into town getting out of the truck in the middle of a heaving mass of people struggling with a lot of drunken Grenadiers and disappearing for a few hours. I woke up on the beach in the out of bounds area completely intact with all my possessions and proceeded to walk back to the Barracks. I met a few of the troop walking into town to find out where I was. We then returned back, on the way I picked up a bottle on the promenade and threw it into - I think - some sort of receptacle, I did not realise that the bottle top was already broken and the bottle cut my hand. Being still somewhat under the weather I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a heavily bandaged hand, washed and shaved with difficulty and went to the MI room, when the bandage was removed I only had two nicks at the base of the index finger which was easily plastered up. I still bear the scars to this day. I found out later the lads had used up at least two bandages practising on me.
We had a raw lieutenant posted to us who thought he would catch the guard out one night. He dressed in an old sheet and waited by the trucks in the vehicle park to surprise the guard, well I happened to be the next sector guard and this is what transpired. I heard a challenge of "Come out of there you bastard or you will get a bullet up your backside" or something like that which I leave to the reader's imagination. A sheepish lieutenant went to the guard commander and complained that he was not correctly challenged. I think that the retort was "If you do stupid things like that you deserve all that you get". It never happened again!
In January 1949 came a request for volunteers to go to Egypt where the Signals needed reinforcing and what did I do but volunteer, I only had another year to go so I thought I would see some more of the Middle East - silly me.
Later in that week we were asked to pack our kitbags, one with immediate essentials and the other with our spare Khaki Drill etc. the latter would be forwarded on to us. We never saw the second kitbag again; this was a problem later on since we had to be reissued with things like battledress and denims and as the loss was not our fault the quartermaster had to stump up and smile.
My main memories of Tripoli are the walk along the sea front towards the town and seeing the ancient walled castle ahead of you and the sweat trickling down your back during first works parade and wondering if your clean Khaki Drill was getting soiled by it.
Now we normally had egg and beans as a breakfast dish but on this journey from Tripoli to Egypt we had five meals all the same in twenty-four hours starting from about 1900 hrs on one day to about 1800 hrs the next day.
We first went for breakfast No.1 at our barracks before getting in the trucks to go to the airfield. There we were given breakfast No.2 whilst our kit was loaded onto a Douglas DC3 (Dakota) then we got on board, the accommodation was as to be expected very crude, just bench seating along the fuselage and no seat belts as I recall. No one had warned us that it was going to be cold and we were still in Khaki Drill, after a while we managed to get a blanket apiece and wrap ourselves up in it and sleep somewhat fitfully. I watched the sun coming up over the desert and remember thinking hurry up over it so we can get warm. It was my first flight on a large aircraft - a flight on an old biplane over a seaside resort in Wales for a quarter of an hour didn't count - and I watched the wingtips shaking about with some sort of trepidation. We landed in the early morning at a staging post in the desert called El Adem and promptly went to the cookhouse for breakfast No.3. Now for a remote desert outpost it was surprising that as we went from the plane to the cookhouse an old "schoolie" I knew who went into the RAF waved and we had a short conversation. Later I learned that my cousin Joan and her husband had also been stationed there.
Why we landed at El Adem I don't know, maybe the pilot wanted a leak, I know we did. Anyway being now warm and fed we went on to the last leg of the journey getting a good aerial view of the sandy wastelands of the Western desert and eventually landing at Fayid in the southern part of the Suez Canal zone and guess what, breakfast No.4 awaited us. Shortly after landing we were packed into trucks and made our way north to Ismailia and into the tented camp of 3 Infantry Division Signals and you guessed it, breakfast No.5 awaited us.
Here, because it was classed as winter we had to go back into battledress, which meant getting re-kitted out. We thought that battledress was a bit odd until we experienced night time temperatures especially when doing the incessant guard duties demanded of us. On some of the early morning Signal Despatch runs in open top Jeeps we had a greatcoat on. Anyway it was back into Khaki Drill around the end of March.
Going into Ismailia one Saturday night we discovered that young lads would threaten to throw ink or some similar substance over your Khaki Drill unless you gave them money, the first time I encountered this I threw some lira I had left over from Tripoli into the far distance and got them out of the way. Later we usually went out in bigger groups and gave them as good as we got. This type of activity was a menace in Egypt not at all like Libya.
During the time here we had plenty of work to do, some of which was quite an experience, one time several of us were checking the lines going into and out of the Main HQ when the portable phone which we had connected for testing purposes rang and was answered by one of the chaps with "Chinese Laundry here". He was told off by the Colonel in no uncertain terms and was collected by the MP's in the space of about half an hour. Fortunately I was up a pole at the time and only knew about it when the Military Police arrived.
There was a village nearby called Arishia, which had to be gone through by truck to several destinations, one time I was standing up on the front seat with my head through the observation port when a large stone came over and just caught me on the nose. Being somewhat startled I raised my Sten gun up and turned toward the rear of the truck to see several of the chaps who were seated on the canopy diving like hell for cover. We kept our heads down after that.
One day we were called out because some of the main lines to Cairo were down and we were ordered out very quickly without any arms and proceeded to where we had located the break, which was caused by some enterprising Egyptian digging down into the sand and removing some twenty feet of cable. We commenced to dig down to expose the two ends of the cable ready to insert another length. The corporal and I went to see if we could trace the culprit and followed the marks made by someone dragging something heavy in to a small village. We were met by a very hostile crowd and we had to retreat because the only weapon we had was my pair of pliers in a belt holster.
After digging and toiling in the heat - this was summer time - for some six hours we were exceedingly parched. A ration truck should have arrived but was delayed due to a breakdown, I remember climbing in the back when it arrived and dipping a mug into some foul liquid that was supposed to be tea and drinking this down with relish closely followed by another one. I was glad to get back into camp that evening.
On the lighter side I was sent into the RAF camp in Ismailia to check the tension on the overhead lines, the copper got stretched when it was hot. I put on climbing irons and climbed the pole and was busily sorting out the lines to re-tension when I realised I was being waved at from down below. I was overlooking the WAAF compound and some of them were sunbathing in the nude, well after all I had my job to finish, which I did exceedingly quickly, climbed down and was off the site very quickly. I discovered later that the pole had been condemned because of termites.
During the early part of the year my spare time was taken up by sailing and swimming in Lake Timsah. Somehow I had made friends with one of the corporals who had managed to get into the local boating club and we often sailed a dinghy on and around the lake. The lake was connected to the Suez Canal and we sometimes had to manoeuvre very quickly out of the way of the shipping passing through. From the dinghy the size of even a twenty thousand ton vessel looked very large.
Passing through the Canal at this time were a lot of emigrant ships sailing to Australia and New Zealand and we always exchanged waves with the passengers.
One day we were called on to go on to the banks of the Canal and give rousing cheers to the destroyer "Amethyst" which was returning from China having had a brush with the then Communist rebels.
The guard duties were getting monotonous, sometimes once every seven days because we were short of personnel. These guards sometimes had their lighter side, I recall the clear starry nights, which made all things seem peaceful and unreal. Then there was the time we were called out to find a little figure running in the distance with a huge load on his head and the guard trying to take a pot-shot at him, we later found out it was a tent that had been stolen. We had to fix bayonets and turn out the "dhobi wallahs" who were resident in the camp and did all the laundry and remove them from the camp. There was always a lot of thieving going on by the locals and they were really ingenious at it and could carry items between their legs under their robes and not look as if they were doing so. The "dhobi wallahs" were replaced and life got back to normal but the searches on those entering and leaving the camp were intensified.
I was sitting in the NAAFI one evening and there was the sound of a shot and a hole appeared in the wall and roof, one of the guard had somehow put a round up the spout and fired during the guard mounting inspection process much to everyone's consternation.
On company orders one day it stated that a trip to Cairo and the Pyramids was being organised and would interested personnel put their name down. Having some back pay due I used it to finance the trip and having borrowed some civilian clothes, later found myself on a bus heading toward Cairo. According to a leave pass I still have it was 25th September 1949 [the day before his 20th birthday -- SG]. We arrived in Cairo and went to The National Hotel, which was an old fashioned place with marble interiors and plumbing that didn't function very well, but it was a change from living in a tent. The Pyramids were impressive, only spoilt by the antics of the boys who wanted to sell you "genuine souvenirs". Inside the Great Pyramid was impressive especially the huge blocks making up the passageway to the "Kings Chamber". I later stood by the sarcophagus and felt strangely disquieted standing right under all that mass of stone. Later we went into the Cairo Museum, the guards there were not particularly friendly. Overall the trip was enjoyable.
There was a great flap one day; we had to prepare for a large exercise, which was to take place in the Western Desert south of Suez. It was to a combined exercise with mobile artillery, armoured vehicles and the RAF, all utilising a few hundred acres of desert for bombing and shelling practice. There were to be landlines running all over the place, put there previously by another Signal Troop, we were to be just maintenance and support. We arrived two days before the start of the exercise, our truck was so full of equipment that there was no room to sleep there so I rolled myself in a blanket, dug a hole for my hip to rest, and went to sleep under the truck. The next day was uneventful, but at about 2am the next morning I was roused from a surprisingly deep sleep to be ordered to go with several others on a wire laying truck out into the middle of the range where some half tracks had chewed up some of the landlines and get them repaired before 8am - that being the time that the guns would open up. To cut a long story short we suddenly realised that time was ticking on very quickly, so we stopped what we were doing and the driver tried to break all land speed records. Now hanging on in the back of and old "Guy" one-ton truck with a large cable drum and trestle and other heavy items going like a veritable Jehu was to put it mildly, disconcerting. To make matters worse the truck went up a mound and suddenly swung round and back down. What we called the driver I can't remember, he then went round the mound and stopped so that we could disentangle ourselves and nurse our bruises.
We went to "question" the driver more closely when he pointed at the muzzle of a self propelled gun pointing over the mound and then at his watch. While we recovered the gun suddenly opened up and we reluctantly saw the reason for the driver's actions. We had nothing to do for the remainder of the exercise and later collected all our kit and returned to camp.
There used to be a regular run from all the camps in the area to the main stores in a place called Tel-el-Kebier, in Arabic the large mound or hill, it was just known as TEK. One day I was told to draw a Browning 38 pistol and five rounds of ammunition from the armoury and go on escort duty on the aforesaid truck. I was instructed to keep my back to the driving cabin and not sit on the sides as going through some of the crowded villages some of the Egyptians were prone to stick knives through the canvas. We passed through some very crowded places and I received quite a few hostile stares from the populace. I felt very much like John Wayne entering an Indian village except I couldn't draw as quickly as him, being hampered by a lanyard and a holster flap. Anyway the trip was without incident and we collected our stores and had lunch in the mess. TEK was staffed by the RASC and protected by the Royal Irish Fusiliers who did their guard duty racing round in a half-track at night and they claimed to bag at least one thief a night who was left to hang on the perimeter wire until collection the next morning. It is no wonder there were hostiles around the place! We returned to our camp without any incident.
At the end of October 1949 I was suddenly informed that my demobilization group (125) was being advanced, I presume that was in order to fill up a troopship. So we caught a train in Ismailia and went to Port Said. There we had the most remarkable medical I have ever had, it was called an FFI, meaning free from infection. It consisted of stripping down to our Khaki Drill shorts running past two medical orderlies with your arms held high, stopping at a table where a medical office sat, dropping your shorts and turning round, then running out and getting dressed ready for embarkation.
Everything was uneventful, being an image of the trip out from Blighty, until we ran into a storm passing by Malta. Swinging in hammocks took the sting out of it - everybody swayed in unison, a few people were sick and in the crowded space this was a trifle unpleasant. I got up and stowed my hammock early and went on deck for some fresh air and as I passed the galley I had a whiff of kippers being cooked for breakfast, I very nearly succumbed there and then to being sick but struggled to the air in time and had a bracing walk around the deck which settled everything down. I think I managed a hearty breakfast after that, more so since the mess deck was comparatively empty. We were with a lot of infantry; I can't remember which regiment. One night there was some shouting and bawling; one of their sergeants was shouting at the lads, I think he must have been drunk or rather stupid, there was a thumping noise and peace and quiet reigned. I never bothered to find out what had happened but you don't mess about too much with troops returning home.
We arrived at Princes Wharf Liverpool early in the morning and commenced disembarking by sections, being one of the last sections to disembark we took a tour round the ship and found in the galley a lot of oranges some of which we stuffed into our battledress blouses for sustenance on the interminable train journey to Aldershot. How I got through customs without comment I don't know, but I did. Several chaps were stopped and searched, one I remember had a diamond ring in his field-dressing pocket, which the customs unearthed and he had to pay a lot of duty, and fined for saying he had nothing to declare.
On the train journey I had time to reflect on life in Egypt. The sight of the ordinary fellahin squatting on the banks of the Sweetwater canal doing their morning ablutions on the canal bank and washing their backsides with canal water was disconcerting at first as was the sight of mothers feeding their babies and afterwards expressing their milk in to a mug to be used in tea later on. Life there seemed very primitive at that time.
Of all the people I served with I remember Bomber Bates for our escapade in Malta, two Northern Irish signalmen Paddy Moreland and Paddy Morgan who became my firm friends in Egypt. There was a troop sergeant in Ismailia called Howard; I don't remember his first name, who had collected a Military Medal in Europe somewhere and for some reason he and I got on exceptionally well. We devised a method of reeling in cable over the front of the truck so that the driver could see what he was doing and we didn't need to continuously keep guiding it by hand. Once during a guard duty he called me into his tent and supplied me with hot tea and against regulations we chatted away for some while. The duty officer walked in saw us talking, ignored me and spoke to Sgt Howard, I sloped off out of the tent and there were no repercussions on me at all - such is the power of a Military Medal in the army.
We arrived at Aldershot and exchanged out kit for old battledresses dyed blue (no demob suits those days), paid up and given travel passes home. At Euston station waiting for the train with several other chaps one of the "ladies of the night" was highly indignant that the Army sent us home dressed like that. These uniforms later had to be returned or paid for: I returned mine!
Returning home was strange especially as my parents were moving from Stoke to Barking in Essex and I had to adjust to many things. One thing didn't change; I was still listed on Z reserve and was required to attend camp in June 1951 and duly went to Penhale camp near Newquay where I met my wife Jean, she had just joined the Territorial Army, later I joined the TA at the same place at Brompton Road London and officially discharged from the Army having served 1 year 330 days with the colours and 1 year 191 days with the reserve. In 1952 Jean and I got married and all service ceased on discharge from the TA. I had stopped being No.21067688 Signalman Gilham A E and was now a fully-fledged civilian.