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To War With The Bays: 24 - Cairo

...I was issued with some new kit accompanied by much grumbling from the QM at my not having brought my kit with me when I baled out of the tank. He moaned particularly about having to give me a new gas-mask because I hadn't 'bothered' to take my other one with me. This really upset me.

The people like him, back at the Cairo base we referred to rather contemptuously as 'base wallahs'. In their cosy Cairo offices they had no idea what it was like to be fighting in the desert. If you ever came across one somewhere else, he usually was telling everybody what the war was like...

Having recovered from his battle wounds Jack Merewood has some days of respite in Cairo before returning to combat.

I caught Ronnie up at the transit camp at Benjamina (a very desolate spot). As it came dark the air was filled with the howling of wild dogs, and this lasted well into the night. There seemed to be hundreds, though we never saw them.

After being there a few days and knowing that we were both bound for the Bays' base in Cairo, we asked if we could leave at the same time, a request which was granted. There were a group of us on the four-mile march to the railway station where we were then put on a train which was packed with civilians. There was no room in the carriages so we made ourselves as comfortable as we could in the corridor.

The train left at 2.30 p.m. At 11 o'clock it stopped at a station and we were served some stew and tea on the platform. Next stop was Qantara about 6 a.m., where we had breakfast.

My diary says: 'The Arabs were selling everything on the train - tea, chocolate, sun-glasses, books, lemonade and anything else you could think of.'

We arrived at Cairo station at 10.30 a.m. after a very uncomfortable twenty-hour train ride. Here we waited for an hour or so, then a lorry came, picked us up and took us to Abbassia, our Cairo base.

We spent just over a week at the base and were put on 'escort duty' every day. This meant taking prisoners for walks, sometimes handcuffed to us. Ronnie, now a corporal, was put in charge of this operation.

They had their bugs in Cairo too. There were iron bedsteads in the barracks, and it was the weekly duty of an orderly to go round all the joints with a blow-lamp to burn them out. Also the 'biscuits' that made up the mattresses had the corners soaked with something like paraffin. In spite of this, some nights we were still bitten half to death.

I was issued with some new kit accompanied by much grumbling from the QM at my not having brought my kit with me when I baled out of the tank. He moaned particularly about having to give me a new gas-mask because I hadn't 'bothered' to take my other one with me. This really upset me.

The people like him, back at the Cairo base we referred to rather contemptuously as 'base wallahs'. In their cosy Cairo offices they had no idea what it was like to be fighting in the desert. If you ever came across one somewhere else, he usually was telling everybody what the war was like.

We had been promised a week's leave in Cairo, but as we hadn't any money, not having been paid for some time, we couldn't go until the pay arrived. Finally it did and we set off.

We stayed at a small hotel called the King George. There were a number of service clubs in Cairo, and in one of them were billiard tables where we had a few (very one-sided) games.

At one of the clubs we arranged a visit to the Pyramids and the Sphinx, which fully lived up to our expectations. Our Arab guide was very good and knowledgeable. It was a real thrill to see these ancient structures. I climbed up just one of the huge stones of the Great Pyramid. It was an exciting day.

Cairo had several cinemas and one night we went to the Odeon to see Walt Disney's Fantasia. There were also good shops many of them French. I sent my grandfather a brass cigarette box lined with wood as a present. It had the Sphinx and the Pyramids and other Egyptian figures on it. When he died the box was handed down to me.

There were beggars everywhere. A particular nuisance were little boys running around as 'bootblacks'. While you were looking in a shop window they would sneak up and put a blob of boot-polish on your boots and then offer to clean them for money of course. A gentle kick usually cleared them away, but often they would follow, pestering. We were not allowed to hit these tormentors, but it was a rule not always obeyed.

The back streets of Cairo were not a safe place for soldiers to go, especially at night, unless in pairs or more. There were gangs out to steal their money, but more importantly their paybooks to sell to German agents. It was said that there were thousands of swastika flags ready to be waved when the Germans marched into Cairo.

Our leave was over, so it was back to the base and the bugs. Next day we set out into the country, a rough ride on lorries, to be delivered back to our regiment. I was dropped at 'C Squadron, and immediately found myself back in No. 1 Troop as gunner in a Sherman tank commanded by our troop sergeant Nobby Clarke.

In less than three weeks we were in the Battle of El Alamein.

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