WW II, a British focus  



Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008poppy.gif - 1571 Bytes


We had been in the desert near Mersa Matru North Africa for about a month now, and we were getting used to the silence at night also the bright sparkling stars. On reading this one would think, big deal, I have camped out under stars when I was a Boy Scout or Girl Guide. But this was different in that no one knew what was going to happen next. Also we knew there was some one not too far away waiting to blow our heads off, so we did not light any fires after dark and we did not have any sing songs. In fact we did our utmost to hide the fact anyone was there at all. Also if someone went for a walk there could be a sudden explosion and a cloud of smoke and dust and a bloke could be on the ground screaming with his legs blown off having stepped on an anti personnel mine. One bloke found an anti tank mine one day, and we discovered we had all walked over it several times without knowing, but it needed the weight of a tank to set it off. However we did not keep walking over it to test this theory and soon the engineers had taken it to another area where it was disposed of despite our urging to bury it outside the officer's fox hole

One extra hot day we were sitting as usual in our dugouts. A dugout was a hole about eight to ten feet square dug down into the sand to a depth of four to five feet. Two or three groundsheets laced together would cover it, held in place by rocks that also served as a reminder to any one walking up top that there was a hole there. The finishing touch to this arrangement was one or two splashes of water on the ground sheets followed by a sprinkling of sand and 'walla' from the air you would not be seen, we hoped.

We found that the only draw back with so many holes dug for a company of men to live in, the continual walking from one to the other soon wore a track in the sand that could be spotted from the air. Every now and then some one would make rake of twigs and brush the area. When we did this every one tried to get away from the dust cloud that developed. We also cut steps so we could climb out but these soon got reduced to just a slope so now and again we would have to throw out more sand to give us room to lie down to sleep. Usually three or four blokes would share a dug out and in the heat of the day the favourite pastime was playing cards on a blanket. One bloke would act as lookout because gambling for money could cause argument or bad feeling among some of the less sporty types that sometimes thought their opponent was winning too often. Soon the blanket would be littered with money and or cigarettes, some blokes played just for cigarettes.

Then a truck would be heard and every one would grab a rifle and peer out to see if it was one of ours. When we were sure it was one of ours we would crowd round for the latest news. Some times we would get a couple of new boys with white knees fresh out from Blighty (home).

On one of these occasions one of the new blokes said, "we just came from Alexandria, we were in the Fleet Club all last night, cor you should have seen the belly dancer, built like a brick dunny she were". "Yea we know" said one of our blokes, a bit impatient, "but was all the Fleet in"? With a cheeky grin the reply was "given time, well yea, by now, I wouldn't be a bit surprised". Then as he realised he was on a different wavelength he hastily added, "What fleet? in where? oh 'yea, our fleet, well they must have been, we couldn't move for matlos, bloody place was crawlin' wi' 'em.

"Roit", said one of our blokes,"oim puttin' in fer leave termorrer. Bob Moat and I looked at each other and nodded. About three days later there were four of us going to Alex on leave for a week. We had just enough money between us to keep us out of trouble but not enough to go rampaging through Alex like starving elephants. But with a bit of luck that could change, because it was a known fact that if the fleet was in Alex harbour, then the fleet club would be crawling with sailors, and the tombola tables would be full to overflowing. It had been known for some lucky bloke to pick up a hundred pounds for a full house. And with a hundred pounds one could paint Alexandria any color one wished, if one could get enough paint that is.

We got booked into our hotel and because it was an hour to tea time we just laid on our beds and enjoyed the ceiling fan gently wafting the air around us. Since the window was open the different smells and odours from the street permeated the air of our room and I could smell coffee brewing and the fragrant aroma of Turkish cigarettes. The Turkish cigarettes were oval compared to our round ones, and on one end was a gold printed inscription in Turkish also a gold crescent moon and one star. I heard a vendor in the street below calling out in Arabic and being curious I went over to the window and leaning on the sill I watched as life flowed by according to Allah. The man carrying the urn on his back had a strap fastened to the urn on both sides and it was looped round his forehead to take the weight. An Arab approached the water seller and handed him a coin that looked like a metal washer. The water seller took a little cup off a hook attached to the urn and offering it to the little tap that poked between his arm and his side he turned on the tap and filled the cup and gave it to the buyer. Having sated his thirst the man handed back the cup and the water seller rinsed it and hung it back on the hook and continued on his way up the street calling "moir, moir."

Below us we heard a gong being sounded and I offered what I thought was a witty comment 'bring out your dead' No one laughed but one lad said, 'tha' could be oor trough gong' So we scuttled downstairs and got seated round a table and waited for the waiter to bring our grub. An Arab bloke with a fez on came to our table and informed us that if we wished to eat we should go to the counter and help ourselves and bring the food back to this table.

Having been fed and burped we set off for the fleet club. Bob Moat and I with the other two stalwarts in tow trickled to the edge of the pavement and hailed a passing Garry. No Gary Cooper is not in this yarn. The Egyptian Garry is like a horse drawn cab of Victorian England. However we did eventually get to the Fleet Club. I must have had some one else's share of shandy as well as my own, or some one had slipped me a micky fin because I was waiting for one number for 90 quid when some one shouted 'house'. Then a bloke said to me, 'yo 'ed a full house afore that number cam oot, that number on yer card tha' isnae covered cam oot six numbers ago' I said to him, 'just gi me a swift kick in the dacks ' and he did. That ended our sorjourn in to the bright lights and for the next month all I got was, 'wot dummy is sittin' wi 90 quid in 'is lap then?' And back to the sand and flies and the lonely desert we went.


2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.
Tom Barker