Feeding the Royal Corp of Signals

When I first arrived in Egypt during the 39/45 war as a Royal Engineer Second Lieutenant, I was lent to the Royal Corps of Signals. An “outsider” I had more than my fair share of being Orderly Officer, and accordingly had ample opportunity to observe army catering and the troops reaction to it. In general it was greasy and very second rate, with few green vegetables, other than tinned peas, and little or no fruit. The generous amount of rations issued gave the cooks chance to spoil at least a third of it and still have ample left to feed the bulk of the troops who had no alternative other than to eat it.

After a short spell of this life I was made head of the Signals Experimental Section and became involved in the planning of a separate unit. I was pleased to note that the unit included two cooks and ample cookhouse equipment. In fact when the unit was stationed at Abbasinia it was able to acquire a third cook (an Egyptian) from garrison HQ, who was later to minister to the needs of the sergeants. The first sergeant cook who appeared had been called up from being a chef at the Queens Hotel Hastings, a REAL chef, this was a bit of luck.

The cookhouse stoves at first burnt wood, coal, even crushed cattle cake, but later some genius invented the feed of water and oil drops onto a hot flat plate, which was supposed to burn the oil without smoke. This was quite impossible and the chimney collected a form of soot deposit, which would explode with a loud bang every six weeks or so, giving a mushroom cloud of dense smoke both inside and outside the cookhouse resulting in spoilt tempers and spoilt food.

About this time we located a device to generate heat, rather like a huge blow-lamp, that the RAF cooks were using with great success. A Chinese Copy was made and my number one acquired a pressurised fuel tank from a garage. He had seen the original RAF arrangement where the tank was some seven feet above the ground, thus supplying a gravity feed. He worked out that the pressure would need to be about 30lbs/sq inch in our new tank to give the equivalent pressure of the gravity feed. I said it was more likely to be about 2 or 3 pounds but he went ahead. Some days later I emerged from my labours in time to witness a flame some twenty feet long and two feet round playing along the cookhouse wall. The pressure was adjusted to my estimate and the thing worked, no more soot explosions or lost tempers.

Next we had to sort out a fund to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and other necessaries, such funds were quite legal in the army then. As we had a strength of around 100, the NAAFI did not want to set up shop in our camp but gave us 10% discount on bulk purchases of food and drink. This gave us a good start, most of the unit were well paid sergeants or tradesmen so the average that each was spending per week was around 75p (A lot of money in the 40’s when a loaf of bread was about 2p and a pint of beer 3p). We had other more unofficial sources of funds, each officer and sergeant was allowed to buy one bottle of Whisky a month. They were a very abstemious lot and could usually save around twenty bottles a month in all. These were readily snapped up at a little below black market price by our not so abstemious American friends in nearby Camp Huckstep.

We also used to receive boxes of valves and other electrical stuff from the defeated Italians in Eritrea, quite often mixed up with this would be Italian carbines and ammunition which the Americans valued highly as “hunting rifles” for their return to the States. We did a brisk trade in exchange for Milwaukee beer. We got along very nicely for a while buying cauliflowers, cabbages, oranges, dates etc. at the local market in Bab-El-Luk. Bab-El-Luk is still worth a visit, bearded patriarchs sit at desks surrounded by their porters and loads of magnificent vegetables. However the sight of miserable chickens having their throats slit over the town drains is a bit off-putting.

One day however the powers-that-be, decided that too much money was being spent with these local traders and all military personnel were prohibited from further trading. This was a terrible blow we had been buying huge corn-on-the-cobs for 1/2d (old  pence), cauliflowers for 2d, melon and other fruit were a little more expensive and, believe it or not the most expensive of all was the dreaded Brussels Sprout at about 2/6 per lb (12p). However this ultimatum meant little to the resourceful. My number one had been in Egypt for some years and was married to the Sister in Charge of the only women’s hospital in Cairo, the Lady Cromer Clinic. She was not subject to Military Rule and regularly bought produce at the market, she now bought even more and we took it off her hands. Easy when you know how.

Fish was occasionally issued by the army, mostly fearful red-eyed beasts like overgrown herrings, from which the cooks made some very passable fish and chips. Sometimes, however these fish were bad and by heaven did they stink when they were. For some unknown reason only a doctor could condemn it as unfit for food and the whole smelly cargo would have to be taken along to the Quack, inspected, and his signature obtained, the fish would then be replaced with tinned sardines. Some things the troops would not eat, namely Rice, Sweet Potatoes and Lentils. Why Rice I cannot imagine, sweet potatoes, yes, even if turned into crisps they were horrible. The lentils found another use, a friend of mine had a unit near the Sphinx at Giza and had bought hundreds of small chickens, which lived mostly on grubs, flies and lentils collected from many Units, in return for eggs. Soon all the chickens died of Fowl Cholera in one week. The one thing we always had plenty of was Mustard, the amount issued was probably a reflection on the days when most of the meat was going off or close to it. Marmalade was also plentiful and whenever I went to visit the Hebrew University in Palestine. I would take some of our surplus mustard and swap if for fresh fruit which was much cheaper there than in Egypt. One time when raisins were plentiful and about 5d/lb. I asked an Armenian servant of a university friend to buy 5 Okes (about 12lb) for me to take back. I didn’t know that the Palestinian Oke was 12lb unlike the Egyptian which was 2lb, I ended up with half a hundredweight, but they kept well.

I discovered that one of my unit had been a butcher before being called up, and that he had been helping out at the ration store cutting up sides of beef, it appeared that he was bringing back, from these visits, suet and about 15lb of meat a time. His story was that the meat would dry out on the long journey from South America to Egypt and then when hung in the store would absorb moisture at around 25lb per carcass. This meant that he and his mates could “absorb” the surplus meat and share it out – apparently this was common practice among the army butchers. I often wonder how true this is, my present butcher say that he has never heard of it, so the story may well have been for my benefit, but as Egypt near the Nile is a very moist area it could just have been true.

To end on a mystery, our Egyptian cook who could read and write Arabic, which was very unusual for a cook, was caught one day in the sergeant’s mess with an empty whisky bottle which he had finished off. He boldly proclaimed “I am not a thief” many times, but what was never explained was why he had stripped himself naked for his drinking bout.

At least I was always rather pleased that in one camp I could be sure that the troops were well looked after in the matter of food. To make sure, as we always kept the Duty Officer in the Camp until a late hour, he was provided with a standard meal and commanded to report anything not up to scratch. He never did!

Eric Vast.

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