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Chapter 5. The War.

I was in Alexandria for 2½ years. I didn't get any home leave but I had periods of leave, some in Cairo.

There was a part where I really don't understand what role I was playing. Among the instructions I had at the time I was reaching Alexandria was to equip the medical stores of a flotilla of 45 light craft. It was all very confidential, very secret. I was told that the Americans were to convince the Turks that they were to come into the war on our side and then this flotilla should go up the Dardanelles and up the Danube. There were all sorts of stories of getting to the Danube before the Russians and that sort of thing, and that we were going to attack Greece. The Greek navy was anchored in Alexandria; these were all fairly old ships but they could have been useful in the invasion of Greece. We understood they had to be equipped and ready for this. The flotilla was to go up the Danube hoping to reach Central Europe before the Russians did, but that entailed Turkey joining the allies. The story goes that the Americans, by promising all sorts of goodies including a lot of medical equipment, persuaded the Turks that they should join the allies and allow passage of these craft through the Bosphorous to the Danube. Then, there was unexpectedly vigorous resistance in the Dodecanese, a group of islands in the Mediterranean occupied jointly by the Germans and the Italians. The Italians had retired from the war and in fact were classed as co-belligerents and we'd hoped that, if a small British force was sent to these islands, then the Italians would fight against the Germans. They didn't, they just stayed put, so the attack on the Dodecanese failed miserably. I think that changed the Turk’s minds or something did and they decided they weren't going on with us any more. So all that fell through. It may have been a hoax for the Germans; it may have been that the Turks wouldn't play with the Americans or the Greeks. It was obvious that an invasion of Europe was going take place and I hear now that great efforts were made to make the Germans think the attack would come up through Greece via the Balkans instead of across the Channel. And all this about fleets being equipped in Alexandria and great resources built up and so on might well have been part of this business.

Part of a story I was told was: two trains set off from Damascus. They had come up from the Red Sea where they had been loaded. One train had gone across the border to Turkey and the other hadn't started off, yet. The first train, if it ever existed, disappeared. Nobody knew where it was; some people were very worried while others didn't seem worried. I went up to Beirut to look for this train and no one was at all interested. Some people thought the Turks had got it and some people didn't know of its existence. It might well have been all part of the hoax. Anyway the other train was there and so the orders were that if the Turks wouldn't come into the war, to take it back to Alexandria. It was used to equip a new naval hospital in Alexandria.

There was no naval hospital in Alexandria until then. The navy shared the army hospital, the 64th general hospital. There was a naval medical depot in Alexandria. The senior pharmacist there had died and he hadn't been replaced—shipping difficulties, I suppose. Then, in the German attack on Egypt, in what was known in naval circles as "the flap", the two pharmacists at the depot were transferred to a hospital ship which retired to the Suez Canal. The medical stores were left under guard—not very reliable guard.

When “the flap” was over, and it was obvious the Germans weren't going to capture Alexandria, the staff of the medical depot got together and started to reassemble their stores. I got there when that stage had begun. There'd been quite a lot of looting of the stores and there was still a lot of theft as there weren't proper guards—a lot of stores were pilfered. We had a number of local Egyptians for low grade labour, unpacking cases and packing them, and they had these flowing calibers (long flowing shirts) that you could conceal almost anything under. They had no loyalty to the British—we paid them and they worked.

We decided that we must try and muster the stores that we'd got left, so that we could keep count of what was going on. Elaborate accounts had been made but they bore no relation to the stores because of all the pilfering. What I wanted to do, and I think the medical officer in charge wanted to do, was take stock of what we'd got and start the account again. However, the commander in chief said that involved writing off a large sum that had to have Admiralty approval. So the thing just went on and on and on although we managed to get some of the stores to correspond to the accounts.

It was all made more difficult by the fact that a lot of our medical supplies came from America and they had different names for a number of things. So we got two accounts for the same product. The actual keeping of the store records was done by a team of Greek girls and they had no idea of what they were doing. One of them could speak quite fluent English and act as an interpreter and she seemed to do well. The others were the best we could get.

All that passed over and, after the invasion of Europe was well under way, it seemed to be only a matter of time before victory there was complete. Arrangements were being made to transfer forces to the east against the Japanese.

The army personnel in Egypt were moved out and the 64th general hospital, with all its equipment, was transferred to the navy. They set up a naval hospital in Alexandria for troops in transit and also for the repatriation of wounded from the far east. An old casino was found that had been requisitioned by the army for some time but not used. It was called Lamlay casino and became the Royal Naval Auxiliary hospital of Alexandria, complete with an admiral to administer it and all the specialist staff that came with him.

They used second-hand army equipment, which, of course, the navy didn't like very much. We also had another source of equipment amongst this lend-lease stuff which was originally going to Turkey. When that was stopped, the medical supplies that were on their way to Turkey were diverted to equip the naval hospital of Alexandria. We had a mixture of secondhand army equipment—pretty primitive—with American equipment that no one knew anything about.

We closed down the scattered depots of medical stores which had been dispersed to a number of sites because of fears there might be a raid on Alexandria. The supplies were all brought into the naval hospital where we could watch them.

 

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