Friday, February 24, 2006
Not my worst night, by any means
Photo shows: Ron in a street-side studio in Cairo
The time was April 1943, and I was a 19-year-old very green wireless operator, who had just arrived in Algiers in north Africa as reinforcement to General Anderson's 1st Army.
After spending a few weeks in a transit camp at nearby Cap Matifou, I found that a few others and I were to be posted to a light anti-aircraft regiment in Tunis. Our method of transportation there turned out to be cattle trucks on an antiquated railway line.
The train itself caused us some amusement, if that’s the right word. The wagon to which we were allocated bore the sign ‘6 Chevaux au 20 Hommes’ stencilled on the side. We were destined to sit on bare, broken floorboards for the best part of three days.
Occasionally, without warning, the train would stop, and one of the officers aboard would run down the length of the train calling out, ‘We’re here for an hour if you want to do anything.’ ‘Anything’ could include cooking a meal, digging oneself a small hole in the desert scrub or buying hard-boiled eggs from the Arabs who appeared as if from nowhere.
At the end of the first day, the train clanked to a halt, and we all clambered out stiffly to make our beds under the stars.
I had already made friends with another young chap, whom I had first met back in England – a Londoner, like me – and we bedded down next to each other. As we ate our evening’s rations, my friend broke the silence.
‘You know, Ron, this has got to be the worst moment of my life, eating a meal of cold, uncooked bully beef and sleeping on the sand out in the open.’
The joke was that I personally was in seventh heaven.
The brilliant stars in the jet-black sky under which I now lay were the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my own short life. The romance of actually being in the desert was manna from heaven for this particular cockney boy who, until he went in the army, had never been further from home than Brighton.
As the war progressed, I was to savour many experiences, some good, others not so good, and my travels were to take me to Sicily, Italy, Austria, Germany and Egypt. No memory, however, has stayed with me as vividly as that first night in the desert.
I have often thought about my friend’s remark and wondered if he later had occasion to change his mind about ‘the worst night of his life’!