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Chapter 6. Alexandria.

While we were away we were allowed to send some sort of telegram, a service telegram. There were a whole lot of phrases that you could choose from. You chose your phrases and that was sent just as it was to an address and it was resynthesised at the other end. That was the first message I was able to send. Then there were aerograms like A5 paper and we wrote on this and this was photographed and the microfilm sent to England and reprinted as a letter. You were allowed 2 of those a week but there were plenty, lots of people didn’t use 2 a week so you usually had to root around a bit and you could get another.

Then, at the end of the war, when all the pressure was off, you could write a letter and ask for it to be censored in Britain, not in your station. Then, you could send private matter that you didn’t want your censor to know about, quite naturally. It would be censored in Britain, where nobody knew anything about you. Soon after that, almost anyone was allowed to be a censor. I was allowed to be a censor. You had a stamp which you put on the outside of the envelope and signed it to show that you had censored the contents. Your own staff put the letters through and we censored them. You can well imagine that people would not want their personal letters read in that way, so lots of people took censorship at destination and most of the things people were writing you didn’t bother to look.

Alexandria wasn’t any hotter than Davis, 100° was not unusual but I don’t think much above that. It was humid and cold at night. In Alexandria itself near the coast the nights were possibly a bit chilly even in the summer. But in the desert, it was really hot in the summer; in the winter it really was cold.

We lived like lords. Alexandria was a resort for that area in peacetime so there were plenty of guest houses and you could often get a furnished flat. I was friendly with a naval armaments supply officer. We were on the same ship and we shared a flat for quite a while. We had a houseboy. I don’t know where he lived. He always turned up early in the morning and was there to do our dinner at night. He used to take the afternoon off. Then the armaments supply officer—I forget his name—was appointed to Palestine and I joined 3 other fellows. They had a bigger flat and the 4 of us shared this flat.

We had our own houseboy in this latter flat. I got to know this houseboy better. Sied his name was and he came from Sudan. He had a little house on the roof, one of these little houses on the roof for the houseboys for the people who lived in the flats below. He looked after us very well. He would do the shopping and he kept us in order too. He kept the flat spotless. We were really spoilt. When we had guests, he was delighted.

It wasn’t anything special. It was what one would call homely cooking and it was jolly good. He wasn’t very good at puddings but he used to make nice soup. He always insisted in filling the soup plates to the brim. We would say: “That’s enough” but he would always put another spoon in. The meat course was very nice. We had mainly steak. I think he thought English people only ate steak. We tried to get him to buy other meat, but he felt it wasn’t right. But of course although he was a Christian he had the Muslim feeling that you shouldn’t eat pork, so we never had any pork. I think I couldn’t help feeling for him, you used to see the sheep being driven down the roads in the native quarter and they looked awful animals. They had a curious tail. Their tails weren’t woolly like lambs but a great chunk of fat. Well that sort of put me off the lamb, so it was nearly always steak we had one way or another. He could cook little marrows and they were not courgettes but little mature marrows and he could make a lovely sauce to go with them.

We had fruit a lot instead of pudding. Oranges, bananas—plenty of bananas and very nice ones too—fresh. There were plenty of tangerines, full of pips. Oranges were a bit doubtful, but in the early part of the year they came in from Jaffa, from Palestine, lovely big oranges with thick peel. They would come in by the trainload so that oranges were rolling about over the street. You could pick one and peel the skin off and of course it was fine. We felt that it was something the upper class English shouldn’t do.

I was sort of office boy and did my best to sort out what would be required in various circumstances and find where it could be got. The 2 pharmacists used to do the more sort of routine work and of course everything had to be carefully checked before it was packed so that was their job to see it got put into the cases. Of course, things coming in had to be carefully checked and put away but it was all a bit chaotic because we never really got over what was called “the flap”. I wasn’t there then but it was thought that Rommel was going to capture Alexandria.

It must have been a real flap because lots of typewriters were thrown into the docks. Then, when I got to Alexandria they were busy fishing them out. It was thought Rommel might use the typewriters. Really it must have been absolute chaos.

What I liked best in Alexandria was the sea and the warmth. I think the warm evenings were nice too. They used open air cinemas. I had to visit an airfield in the desert and, with the war over, there was no chance of air raids or anything so we had these open air cinemas and watched a film—it was lovely. In the cartoon, “The Flintstones”, they go to an open air cinema. We didn’t go in cars, of course. We just put the chairs round the screen. I didn’t come home straight away after the war as we were packing up the stores.

Then the atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese and the war finished. So we packed as much as we could off to the emerging African states, Kenya particularly. I had the opportunity of going with it, but I was anxious to get home. So eventually it was all packed up and sent to various places with no attempt to produce any accounts about which I was particularly delighted as it wouldn't have meant anything.

I came home from Alexandria in early 1946. I was there almost 3 years. I came home on a troop ship, the Volandam which before the war had been a cargo/passenger ship to the Dutch East Indies but it had been converted to a troop ship by putting 3 decks in the holds—large holds—and the upper of these decks was for officers, the middle for non-commissioned officers and the lower one for the ranks. I was in one of these upper decks with 128 captains. I had no idea there were so many captains in the army. The trip home took 3 weeks. It wasn't a speedy ship and it wasn't meant for the Atlantic. I don't think it was meant for rough weather at all. Anyway, it bucketed in a dreadful manner – rocked and rolled about like a bucket. I had been at sea at odd times, so it didn't bother me, but it demoralized the 128 captains.

Also on the ship was the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (the army’s corresponding service to the WRENS). They made the journey a little more bearable as they had a band and they played to us, nice people to talk to. Of course the caste system was rigidly enforced. Officers were allowed on the boat deck which was the rear half of the ship. Forward to that was where the ATS was allowed to use, so we all used to talk over the fence that separated the two.

One of the memorable things was passing the volcano Stromboli. We passed it at night. It was like a permanently stationary rocket in the sky, glowing peak and streams of red lava going down like the tails of a rocket. This volcano is in the sea off Italy. This was a problem for Italy as it was a permanent beacon by which aircraft could always determine their position. We didn't stop in Gibraltar, came straight home and berthed at Greenock which is one of the docking areas of Glasgow.

Mavis stayed at the Glen. Andrew was born while I was in Alexandria and then Granddad Sheppard died sometime after that, possibly after Andrew was born, because I can remember, after I came from Alexandria, Grandma Myers saying what a blessing Harry had been. They spent their time looking after Harry and seeing that he had a good time so they had no time to think about Granddad Sheppard and his death.

 

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