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To War With The Bays: 37 - The Jeep Trail

...Oh it's great to be on leave, a bed, sheets and a pillow! We decided to buy presents today, and had a good morning's shopping. Colin and I sent telegrams home. Had our photographs taken. I bought an MM ribbon. Had dinner and tea, eggs, chips etc. Went to the pictures at night, then to the Bystander for supper and a drink.'...

Jack Merewood and three friends are allowed a short leave in Cairo.

To read earlier chapters in Jack's vivid account of his wartime experiences please visit To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

I had to go sick with a boil on my arm, which required treatment and dressing. I was afraid I might miss the Cairo trip, so asked the M.O. to put me on M.& D. (medicine and duties), which means 'fit enough to work but needs treatment'. He agreed to do so, and gave me some ointment and bandages in case I needed to have the boil dressed while I was away.

Then it was rumoured that the Cairo trip was off. While we waited, we played cards, swam, picked grapes to make 'wine', picked lovely ripe figs, and I, now an NCO, was ordered to take our troop on PT. 'Just went for a short walk,' comments the diary.

Finally the trip was on again. We packed our belongings and moved in trucks to a dreadful place just outside Tripoli: nine of us in a roasting tent, which was swarming with flies during the day and mosquitoes at night. The only redeeming feature was that it was near the sea. There was a NAAFI and a library where 'all the books were at least fifty years old'.

Stan had to cut out the swimming, it affected his ears and gave him a lot of trouble. Here we kicked our heels for twelve long days, then on 12 August we boarded the Talma, and sailed from Tripoli.

The Talma was an old Indian ship, reputed to have been sunk three times and looking like it. She was rusty, and badly in need of a coat of paint. We chugged out into the Mediterranean.

13 August: 'Stan and I went on deck. Hanging on the rail we suddenly sighted land, and it turned out to be Malta!' We had thought it odd that we were sailing in a northerly direction. We dropped anchor in Valetta harbour, and the Maltese came out to greet us in their little boats - we weren't allowed ashore. We were there for twenty-four hours, and then joined a big convoy sailing eastwards, our destination Alexandria.'

Slowly we ploughed on our way. Our money was changed once again to pounds and piastres. We passed through a time zone and actually knew about it! My boil cleared up but I had developed a couple of painful desert sores.

The food, meanwhile, was on a par with the ship - awful. But the sea was 'flat as a mill pond' the most beautiful deep blue, and we saw lots of flying fish. I started a letter home on the boat which I posted in three stages, from there until we rejoined the Regiment, twenty pages at a time.

The 1,000-mile journey from Malta took another five days. We were very impressed with the size of Alexandria when we docked there at 5.30 p.m. on 18 August, and we weren't sorry to see the last of the Talma. We were given a meal on the docks, then immediately picked up in trucks and transported to the station. There we boarded a train, our carriages being, as expected, the usual cattle trucks, and rattled on all through the night, reaching Cairo at eight o'clock next morning.

We climbed off the train and straight onto trucks, which took us to a camp near Mena. Across the road from us were the Pyramids. The jeeps weren't ready, so we were sent to Cairo on four days' leave. Stan, Colin, Sid and I went together and found a good, small hostel called Liberty House. On arrival we washed, shaved, changed, and ate. Freedom!

21 August: 'Got up about 8.15 a.m. Oh it's great to be on leave, a bed, sheets and a pillow! We decided to buy presents today, and had a good morning's shopping. Colin and I sent telegrams home. Had our photographs taken. I bought an MM ribbon. Had dinner and tea, eggs, chips etc. Went to the pictures at night, then to the Bystander for supper and a drink.'

Our first job next morning was to post all our parcels, after which we looked round the shops again. At this time there were many Service Clubs in Cairo, and particularly good ones were the New Zealand and Tipperary Clubs where we indulged ourselves in the luxuries of eggs, chips, lemonade, ice cream, sandwiches and cakes.

We were still bothered by the little bootblacks, but they were only a minor irritation. We decided to go to the museum, but were disappointed to find on arrival that it was 'Closed for the duration'.

On the third day Colin and Stan had to go back to camp to do guard duty, of all things. Sid and I went and collected the photographs, and they were excellent. I had also had one taken wearing my MM ribbon - the verdict in my diary 'Not bad, but I look to be sulking.'

On 14 August 'Glad to see Stan and Colin roll in about 9 a.m. Walked round. Went to the YM, bought some cigars, then to Tipperary Club. After dinner went to pictures.'

So our short but most enjoyable leave had come and gone. We hitchhiked back to camp, arriving at 9 a.m., to be told that we could go out again till midnight; so we did a U-turn and spent another day in Cairo. That night Ted Wanless and some of the other boys gave us lurid descriptions of some of the night life they had seen on their leave. The pornographic displays were a bit too much, even for some of the most hardened members of our party.

Next day we travelled by truck to Amariya where we spent the night. The jeeps were here, and we were allocated one each. Mine had twenty-eight miles on the clock. Stan and I wanted to drive together, so he followed on behind me and we set off in convoy on the long drive of nearly 2,500 miles to Bne in Algeria.

With a strange feeling we reached a now peaceful El Alamein, and relived the terrible battle we had fought there. There was a huge cemetery at the spot, with long lines of neatly kept graves, each marked with a cross and the name and rank of the soldier buried there. It was an emotional experience to walk between the graves and find friends and colleagues we had lost.

Then on we went the same dusty, dry desert: 178 miles one day, 104 miles another, 135 another. West over Sollum Pass ('I was carrying the jam, it spilled, what a mess'), leaving Egypt behind, and into Libya. Through Capuzzo, and into Bardia to fill up with water - memories of the Grants. We were beginning to feel almost at home. Generally we finished travelling for the day during the afternoon.

We were following the coast road, built by the Italians years ago. Normally it was very good but it had suffered some damage because of the fighting, and occasionally we would hit a bad patch. There were times when we had difficulty making our way through soft sand; even the jeeps, with their four-wheel drives, needed the occasional push. From time to time, too, we had to change the engine oil, because it became thick with sand.

For most of the way the road ran right by the sea, so at nights we were able to swim to get rid of the dust and cool down. Once there was a lovely beach just across the road from where we parked for the night. We wasted no time in running onto the beach and into the sea.

It was only when we were returning to the jeeps that we noticed a sign: KEEP OFF THIS BEACH - IT is HEAVILY MINED. Fortunately there were no casualties.

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