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A Shout From The Attic: Ægypt - 2

...Life in Suez was an easy-going affair with a minimum amount of work and a lot of leisure time that was often hard to fill...

Ronnie Bray continues his recollections of serving with the British Army in Egypt.

Eventually, I was dispersed (not as painful as it sounds) to the British Military Garrison at Suez, at the Red Sea end of the Suez Canal, to serve as a vehicle mechanic attached to the First Battalion of the Green Howards infantry regiment. I was assigned to Support Company, which was the specialist company that operated the four thirty-pounder anti-tank guns, each towed by an American Stuart light tank. In addition, they had twenty American Bren Carriers, and some ten or so British made Austin Champs, based on the idea of the American Jeep, but amazingly advanced for the 1950s.

The Suez Garrison hosted three regiments of British infantry and a contingent of West African Pioneers, affectionately referred to as Jambos . Besides the Green Howards, there were the Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers, known as Skins, and the Royal Scots Grays. These regiments shared the sparse facilities afforded by the post that amounted to an open air swimming pool, an open air cinema, and a NAAFI Club. Apart from a Christian facility run by the Royal Army Chaplains Department, there was little else of interest.

The desert around our camp was a flat bedrock with little of the romantic shifting sand dunes of the common image of Egypt, and the pyramids were a good way off and Out of Bounds, because we were not there as tourists, nor were we there as guests of the Egyptian government, recently taken over by Gamal Abdel Nasser who deposed the playboy-king Faruk. General Muhammad Naguib first headed Egypt’s new government, but in 1954 Nasser stepped out of the shadows to assume power. He eventually negotiated a treaty with the British government, under whose terms we evacuated Egypt after seventy-two years of occupation.

Life in Suez was an easy-going affair with a minimum amount of work and a lot of leisure time that was often hard to fill. I lived in a tent with two other REME mechanics. Although we shared the tent and our work for the next four months, I can recall little about them, not even their names. They were both National Servicemen near the end of their stint and had been together a long time. They were close and did not take kindly to strangers. One of them thought it unusual that I did not drink tea – coffee was not very popular among the British then – and planned to get some into me. Each of us had a vessel known as a chatty.

A chatty is a long-necked porous earthenware vessel that holds half a gallon of water, some of which seeps through the pot wall and evaporates on the outside, keeping its contents cool. Although the neck is restricted about two inches down by a disk into which four holes of about an eighth of an inch had been pierced, my bucolic associate had managed to feed some tea complete with tea leaves into my chatty that stood cooling at our tent door. When next I drank from it I tasted the tea. I had not been a Mormon so long that I did not remember the taste. I dashed the chatty to pieces on the ground and bought a new one for twenty piastres at the NAAFI. Although I did not speak of the incident, being shy and fearful of confrontation, the culprit did not raise the subject, but it was not repeated.

Evenings were spent at the camp NAAFI canteen or at the cinema across the railroad tracks, or at the Christian centre about a quarter of a mile down the Cairo Road. The NAAFI sold Tiger beer, a chemically produced brew of indeterminate strength and also orange juice made from real oranges called Assis. One night, Roy Davies and I were in the NAAFI, Roy with his Tiger and me with my Assis. I matched him pint for pint, although we were not in competition. I left early, and Roy stayed on to talk and have another pint of the mordant mix. There was a sergeant in the Green Howard’s Regiment who was not better than he ought to have been and some days not even as good as that. He had been drinking in the Sergeant’s Mess, because only junior NCOs could use NAAFIs. The Sergeants Mess was close by the NAAFI, and as Roy was leaving and had walked into the cool Suez night air, an unsubtle chemical reaction, using his insides as a retort and his brain as a subject of behaviour modification seriously overtook him and made him go wild and want to destroy all human life he could see.

It was fortunate that he did not see this particular sergeant behind him, and fortunate for the sergeant that he was not seen, and fortunate that although many knew what happened next that night, no one ever told Roy. It might be safe to tell him now because the sergeant is probably part of the dust of history and who would remember his name? Sensing that Roy was behaving like a raging bull and that only firm, decisive, drastic action would meet the need of the moment, the sergeant picked up a two foot long piece of flanged angle iron used to secure tent guy ropes and brought it down hard on top of Roy’s skull. The angle iron proved stronger than Tiger beer, and Roy was stopped in his tracks, and he fell insensitive. The world was safe again.

Roy was taken to hospital, where his head was stitched shut like a leather football, he regained consciousness, and was kept in overnight for observation.

To this day, I doubt if he knows what really happened that night, for he bought the beneficial fiction that he had fallen over and bumped his head. It was a useful fabrication and probably prevented a sober but angry attack on the man who had saved him, if a little drastically, from doing harm to others who were innocent of any offence against Craftsman Roy Davis of Cricklewood, London.

I have many fond memories of my friendship with Roy, and found him a very good and likeable young man with a sense of humour that helped us make light of dreary days and the petty demands of military life.

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