« Tae A Mobile Phone (srry rbb) | Main | Listen Twice, Talk Once »

To War With The Bays: 14 - A Straight Line

...Once we moved away with the tanks we were on our own, and sometimes wouldn't see the cookhouse for weeks or months. We had to make our own meals. The tanks looked like travelling hardware shops, with tin cans and a frying pan hanging from the rear.

To make tea we half filled a can with sand, poured on petrol, then placed another can holding water on top. A lighted match dropped on the petrol gave a good fire. A wooden matchstick dropped in the water helped to stop it from tasting smoky. When the water boiled, in went the tea, and we had 'brewed up'. All the pots and pans were black with fumes from the fire...

Jack Merewood's Regiment arrives in Egypt and begins serious training for battle.

To read earlier chapters of Jack's story please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

By the time we had disembarked at Suez it was early evening. The weather was cold. We were back to wearing boots and had to walk (it could hardly be called a march) about a mile to a temporary camp, where we were allocated to small round tents. There were ten of us in our tent, with just enough room for us all to stretch in a circle on the floor with a couple of blankets each.

We had each carried our own kit, and the first thing we did was to get out our mess-tins. We then lined up where an Arab was ladling out stew from a huge stew-pot. Our two mess-tins were to prove invaluable. The smaller one fitted upside down in the other, and the handles folded neatly over so that when packed they looked something like a box. We ate and drank from them for years.

That first night on Egyptian soil was not one to write home about. We were cold, uncomfortable and dusty, but at least the stew was hot. Next morning we went by train, our 'carriages' being cattle trucks, to Amariya not far from Alexandria.

Our tanks and trucks had not travelled with us on the Empire Pride. Some of the drivers went to the docks to collect them, and we were under canvas in that area for a couple of weeks or so. It was terribly sandy and dusty, and one night there was a terrific sandstorm that brought down one of the tents.

If there was a good point, it was the lemonade they sold in one of the big marquees. I drank gallons of it.

Once the tanks arrived, it was necessary to give them a good 'going over'. My job, as with the other gunners, was to make sure the guns were cleaned and in good working order. We went out in the country and fired on a range.

Off duty, being only a few miles from Alexandria, Ronnie and I got into the town a couple of times. There was very little going on; we looked around and went to the cinema. Lorries were laid on to take us into town and then pick us up at a certain point and time at night.

Eventually, we loaded our tanks onto a train, which took us to Mersa Matruh, about 200 miles west of Alexandria, and about 150 miles east of the Libyan border, where we joined up with the rest of the Regiment. When the Regiment was together like this, a cookhouse was set up, which moved about with the administrative element of the squadron: the squadron office, the trucks used to carry supplies, the water wagon, the fitters, spare crews and the rest of the non-fighting personnel.

Once we moved away with the tanks we were on our own, and sometimes wouldn't see the cookhouse for weeks or months. We had to make our own meals. The tanks looked like travelling hardware shops, with tin cans and a frying pan hanging from the rear.

To make tea we half filled a can with sand, poured on petrol, then placed another can holding water on top. A lighted match dropped on the petrol gave a good fire. A wooden matchstick dropped in the water helped to stop it from tasting smoky. When the water boiled, in went the tea, and we had 'brewed up'. All the pots and pans were black with fumes from the fire.

Most days we were up at 5 a.m. and out on schemes. These were manoeuvres in the desert, getting used to the conditions under which we were to live and fight. Sometimes we would cover sixty or seventy miles and stay away from the base one or two nights. Usually different squadrons (fifteen tanks each) were on a scheme of their own, but sometimes it might be the whole Regiment.

We spent Christmas in this area and had a couple of days off. There was very little to celebrate, though the Queen did send us all a packet of Player's cigarettes, something of a luxury. At night, when we bedded down at the sides of the tanks, Christmas carols could be heard coming from some of the other tanks. We joined in the singing too. On Boxing Day we were given a bottle of beer each.

We endured a few sandstorms here. The wind whipped up the stinging sand, sometimes reducing visibility to only two or three yards. All we could do then was to lie low and wait for the storm to pass. Needless to say the food was pretty gritty. There was no escape from the sand - in food, hair, bed; it is a constant memory of that whole campaign.

Although the Regiment was together, the squadrons were around three-quarters of a mile apart, but as the area was pretty flat they could all be seen from any one point. So I hadn't anticipated any problem when I decided one afternoon to walk over to B Squadron to see Ronnie who was at the Squadron Office.

We talked for a while and then, as it was almost dark, I thought I should be getting back. There were no lights of course, but I knew in which direction C Squadron would be. The moon was up (not a full moon) and it was just a case of walking in a straight line, with the moon over my left shoulder.

I walked ... and walked ... and walked. I began to get a sinking feeling. This was much further than I had walked in the afternoon. I must have walked past the top end of the Squadron, so, if I turned round in a half circle, walked back the way I had come, only to the left as well, I should hit the Squadron.

With hope in my heart I set off again. I walked and walked, and then the realisation began to dawn on me that I was hopelessly lost. I stood still. There was no sound, except the wind blowing sand through the bits of scrubby vegetation. I had no idea which way to turn, so I decided the only thing to do was to lie down and wait for the daylight. I should see something then.

I found a hollow in the sand, with a bit of scrub on top of the little ridge, and lay there for a while. There was no light now from the moon, the wind blew, and it was cold. I had no idea of the time, but I knew it was still long before dawn. Ill freeze to death if I stay here all night,' I thought, so I decided to have another try. I took a guess at the direction in which to go, and set off again.

By this time I was tired. I'd heard of people being lost in the desert and walking round in circles. Was this happening to me? Every few yards I bent down to see if I could see any tanks on the skyline; it was light enough for that if I was near enough.

For what seemed like ages, I walked and stooped and walked and stooped again, and again and again. Then at last, to my great relief, I saw the silhouette of a tank. I walked straight towards it, and was challenged by a guard. I didn't recognise the man.

Was this C Squadron? No, this was A Squadron. He pointed out where C Squadron was.

'Just go in a straight line.'

Another straight line, but this time I got it right. I saw more tanks on the skyline, and soon I was challenged again by a guard.

This time I knew the voice and the face, an Irishman, Paddy Collins. I never thought I'd be so glad to see Paddy Collins. He knew me of course, and asked why I was walking about in the middle of the night. I cut my long story short, found our tank and gratefully crept between the blankets. It was 2.30 a.m.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.