Friday, February 24, 2006

Algiers, April 1943, Our first sight of Africa

Photo shows: Postcard of Algiers

In late March l943 I was detached from the 112th LAA Rgt. and told that I was to join a large draft of Wireless Operators that was being posted overseas, destination unknown. The draft itself assembled at Congleton in Cheshire and it was here that I first met up with Lew Fox who was to stay friends with me from that time on. We then moved down to Woolwich where we were to be given ten days embarkation leave to put our affairs in order.

The final pay parade prior to my leave was to offer some amusement and I tell it now as I remember it at the time. The draft consisted of some four hundred wireless operators and we were all assembled on parade to receive our leave passes and pay. The sergeant major started calling out names in alphabetical order and each soldier in turn marched out some fifty paces to the table that had been set up, saluted the pay officer and after receiving his cash returned to the ranks.

I have now to confess that at this time I was politically naïve and still self-conscious of my very Jewish-sounding name. I was cringing inwardly at the realisation that eventually the letter G would be reached, the name Goldstein would be bellowed out across the parade ground and 399 assembled troops would have ample opportunity to study this Jew boy who was about to join them on their big adventure.

The short story is that when the name Goldstein was barked out, and before I had a chance to answer, another voice in the ranks called out: "Which one Sgt.Major?" There were at least two of us on parade, possibly even three and my only regret to this day is that I didn’t keep in touch with the others.

When I got home to London I was annoyed to find that no one took the significance of my embarkation leave seriously. I was told by all and sundry "Don't take any notice about it being embarkation leave: my son/friend/brother has had seven,eight or even nine such leaves and he is still in England."

When the S.S. Frankonia glided into the harbour at Algiers some four weeks later, I would have been glad of an opportunity to have some of the scoffers aboard with me!

Some memories in life stick more than others, and one such memory was my first sight and smell of Africa. As soon as I could get up on deck after docking I was hit by the immense bright light of the sun hitting the white-washed houses along the coastal strip. This, when coupled with the green of the hills, the blue of the sea and sky and the completely alien smell drifting out from the land, was something completely outside my experience and was a fitting start to my wartime overseas experience.
I remember very well the march to the transit area in full kit and in the blazing sun.
After a few weeks in the transit camp at Cap Matifou, just outside Algiers, life started to get boring and I rashly volunteered to join the camp boxing squad. The immediate short term effect was that I was excused the normal PT which consisted of six-mile runs with full kit and instead had the luxury of training on the beach in singlet and shorts.

One Friday the coach told us that he had got us seats for the weekly boxing tournament in Algiers. As this was going to be where we would eventually perform ourselves, we looked forward to the weekend. Come Saturday evening and the actual show, and I realised for the first time what I had let myself in for. All the contestants had been terribly mismatched with little or no consideration for height, weight or amateur status, and we saw, for example, what looked like a six foot six, fifteen stone American stoker making mincemeat of a five foot six, ten stone stripling from Yorkshire.

The fact that the crowd loved it was of no consolation to me and my fellow squad members, and for the next few days back at the camp we anxiously waited to see each day's postings in the hope that we would be spared the pending bloodbath. To our joy within a day or so the coach came to our hut to give us the "bad" news that we had received our marching orders and therefore could not fight at the next tournament!
I had been posted to the 49th Ack Ack Regiment in Tunis, and the method of transportation turned out to be cattle trucks on an antiquated railway line that took three days to get us to our destination. I have written briefly about this trip in my story “Not my worst night” (A1996860)
On arrival in Algiers I had hardly time to get unpacked before I found myself guarding the regimental car park whilst the rest of the regiment marched through Tunis on the Victory parade before King George the Vl, who had flown out specially for the occasion.

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