Arms and the Man

A goodly proportion of the men in my unit did better than I did when we were all released from the Army, one even went to the States and became managing director of Western Electric. Another of our drivers who I shall call ‘W’, after a shaky start, had a career which I think is well worth recording.

Our unit, Signals Experimental Group, started as a section of SGHO Signals We were not very happy there as usually half the 10 or 12 men comprising the unit always seemed to be on guard duty or some other fatigues The Authorities had accordingly ordained that we should shift to GHQ Troops some few Kilometres up the Cairo Alexandria road, who put up complete units and supplied guards and other services so that they could get on with training etc. This meant that our small party travelled daily in a 30 cwt. truck to GHO situated in the ‘West End” of Cairo.

We were given what had been a dairy inside the wired perimeter fence that was the very devil to cross from inside GHO. We got into the bad habit of leaving the truck outside the wire and poking bits and pieces through the strands to somebody outside. One evening when it was get ting dark the truck had been unattended for a while. I was the last of the party and as I proceeded along the street I noticed an Egyptian police man with a British Lee-Enfield rifle. This was unusual as most of them carried shotguns. When I got to the truck Signalman ‘W’ shouted out that he had lost his rifle. A hunt for the rifle or the policeman didn’t produce anything and a somewhat depressed party returned to camp.

At that time a British Lee-Enfield fetched £50 on the black market, and rifles were disappearing right left and centre, The loss of a rifle had just been proclaimed a Court Martial offence, and the same for anybody concealing it. The basic demand for rifles came from the Bedouin who under Tribal Law were free to shoot each other as was their custom. Usually a Bedu never bothered to clean his rifle, and couldn’t hit a hay stack at fifty yards. Nevertheless, one had recently taken a pot-shot from half a mile at a car doing at least fifty mph on the Alex. road, and shot the Swiss Minister through the head.

I had a discussion with my two regular NCOs and we decided that we would have to report the loss. This I did and was told that we would hear more of the matter in due course. About six months later when we had our own camp and were a much bigger unit we were told to prepare for a Court Martial on such and such a date. This came of course at a most inconvenient time! nor would they change it, But when it did happen it was a most imposing show. There was an old Brigadier, a rat-faced Lt. Colonel, who immediately took a strong dislike to me, and a Subaltern under instruction who, after a good lunch, went to sleep during the proceedings.

We did not exactly cover ourselves with glory. Ratty nearly called me a liar when I gave evidence about the suspect policeman and listed the many virtues of Signalman ‘W’. He was convicted and given six weeks in the Glass-House. Even then, when the Signalman was taken to the railway station en route to prison, the idiot orderly room sergeant forgot to pack his gas mask. I had to take my own in a hell of a hurry to Dabel Hadid station before the train left.

On his return, our Black Sheep told harrowing tales of his experience but nearly wept when he recalled my speech asking for mitigation of the sentence. Later he struck up a relationship with some of the Long Range Desert Group who often called to correct crystals and asked for a trans fer. I did not really want to lose him! and as I knew that he was an only son of his widowed mother! I asked him how she might take it if he got shot up the behind when mixed up with such doughty warriors. However I could not persuade him, and he left us.

Now when the Italians gave up our Prime Minister indulged in his old fantasy of “The soft Underbelly of the Axis” and sent inadequate British support including the LRDG. This resulted in the capture of our hero and one of his mates. In due course they were put on a train bound for a camp on the Dutch-German border. They decided to leave the train just before it arrived, cross Holland and take a ship to the UK. To this end they counted estimated the length of the journey and when they judged that they had arrived, they jumped out of a toilet window.

They tumbled head-ove-rheels down the embankment and as the guards took exception at the summary departure Of the prisoners, opened fire, Actually the calculations had not been done very well as they were in fact still in a mighty forest in Yugoslavia, They wandered about for several days. There was plenty of water and berries but they didn’t eat any of the latter in case they were poisonous,

After a while, weak and desperate, they found a house and gave them selves up. This time they were lucky, it was a safe-house on a POW escape route to the coast. The Navy picked them up and they were soon back in Egypt.

Such escapees were always repatriated to the UK, because if later recaptured and identified they would be forced under torture to disclose how they got away would almost certainly be shot as well, ‘W’ came and saw me before he left for home and told me the story outlined above. He also said “Do you know Sir, what I thought as I rolled down the embankment with the guards all shooting at me? By God! The Major is going to be right. I shall be shot up the backside!”

After the war. I encountered most of the members of the early days of the unit. I never failed to cross examine them on what really happened to that wretched rifle. All but one claimed ignorance, One grinned and said “We thought that we had pulled the wool over your eyes!” He then shut up like a clam. ‘W’ came and to visited me in Hastings a number of times, first on a motor bike and sidecar and later in more and more magnificent cars.

He started a small repair business, which prospered. When I last saw him he was building cabin cruisers in a boatyard or, the upper Thames. He was not in very good nick, and I have not seen him for many years.

Eric Vast.

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