The General’s Inspection

About the time of D-Day, the war had moved a long way from Cairo. The North African shore had been cleared of the enemy, fierce fighting was going on in Italy. Various attempts to land in the Greek Islands, had come to nothing, and a lot of units set up specially to serve the 8th Army, had little or nothing to do.

Not so Signals.  Cairo had become the place where signal traffic between the United Kingdom and the Far East changed frequency so that a good signal could be guaranteed. My lot were turning out more crystals than ever for the whole Mediterranean area, and also were well into the repair of burntout large transmitting valves of the 889/890/891 class. These had always been in poor supply and we had been working on this for months….

We had recently had a new Signals General appointed and he was very much a new broom as well. I received one day a call from my chief that the General was coming to inspect the Unit in a few day’s time with a view to shutting us down, which was a pity. Also I had better put on a good show as, if he did not like what he saw, he undoubtedly would.

I promptly went into conference with my few regular soldiers as to what manner of person he was. Two of them had served under him in peacetime,and one, the Sergeant-Major and the General had been sworn enemies when both had been of much lower rank. Apparantly he specialised in crossexamining lower ranks as to what they were doing, what good would it do the war effort, and when would it be finished. And woe betide anyone who tried to prompt or intervene. Also he was quite nutty on the subject of Cookhouses, the food, the cleanliness, the state of the Grease-traps, and his one joy was to discover a hole in the fly-netting. He was also very Regimental. Well it might have been worse, we had at the time a lot of interesting things to show which he had never seen before, and I was rather proud of the Cookhouse. Incidentally the Sergeant cooks’s last job was that of chef in the Queen’s Hotel in Hastings. We also had an Egyptian cook supplied from the garrison who was nearly as good.

I had a go at the Flight Lieutenant who commanded the RAF section, to see what he could lay on. His lot mainly did Radar, and were currently investigating enemy jamming emanating from Northern France, directed at the UK, but also producing a sub-harmonic arriving at three degrees over the horizon in Egypt, where it had been making a nuisance of itself. He managed to get permission for the General to enter the Radar section which was almost unheard of in those days, it being still top secret. Well, that was a nice start.

I next turned to smartening the place up a bit. Actually it was in pretty good condition, but the wog we had who tended to such matters was suitably harassed. The same could not be said for the troop’s tidiness, so I set the Sergeant-major onto them. That left the officers, all seven of them. They were a much smarter lot than I was, except the RAF Flight Lieutenant who was a complete ruin, I begged him for the love of God, to at least put on a clean shirt, replace missing buttons, and have his tunic and trousers cleaned. He looked a bit startled, examined himself and agreed that he was in no state to lead a full General into the Radar room. Incidentally, I had told nobody the real reason of why we were having the Visitation. I then woke up to the fact that my own kit was not much better. I enquired of the Sergeant-major what I should wear, and after some discussion I settled for tropical-weight jacket and trousers, with a belt. The great day arrived only too soon, early in the day I watched the Grease-traps being made spotless, and myself cut a small slit in the Flynetting of the cookhouse. In case you have never heard of “Grease-Traps”, these are large covered sumps where grease may be trapped to prevent it going on further to such places as cooler underground drains where it tends to solidify, and cause a blockage.

The General arrived at nineish and said that he wanted to see everything. I had arranged that we would be very Regimental and that all would be stood to attention at each point of the visit. This was the only time in the history of the unit that this was allowed. A full General would expect it. He stalked into the first Lab, saw all the busy workers on the job, and hearing no command began to turn round, the instant he was committed to the turn, Out crashed the command “Shun!” from the Sergeant-major. First round to that worthy. One old Regular getting his own back on another. When the General had left, the SM said to me in his broad Scots, “Did you see me catch the bugger when he went into the first Lab? He shouldn’t have gone in first, nor should he have turned round.” Our few Regulars chortled over this for days. Curious people Regular soldiers.

As predicted our visitor went into his routine of what? why? when? but nobody seemed afraid of him and gave a good account of themselves. The crystal manufacture was new to him and he got extremely interested. We had borrowed from the Canadian Embassy in Cairo, half a dozen genuine Canadian Signals people, who had been shown the way to make crystals, and had then stayed with us. Apparantly they were part of a large unit that ministered to the Embassy radio gear, but as it seldom went wrong a lot of them had nothing to do. Knowing about us they applied to become attached and learn the trade. And so it was. This astonished the General who spent quite a long time talking to them.

The next stop was the RAF Radar. I dont think that he had ever seen one before and it took some time to explain. Moving to the next Lab we were able to show him our new baby, the re-filamenting of dud valves. I had arranged a vacuum pumping routine to coincide with the visit. Our “SpotKnocker” of some 80 Kilovolts discharging from a condenser had a most impressive bang. At this time we had given up using a “glassworkers lathe”. The spinning of the work and the joining together of the molten glass took too long, and the silica dissolved in the hard glass began to come out of solution and make the glass cloudy. Much better results could be obtained by heating the work to the critical temperature of the glass with one half of the bulb just sitting on the other, and welding the two together with a tiny oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. To do this an oven of firebricks with internal heater elements had been made with a rotatable turntable for the work. The inside was flushed with Nitrogen to prevent oxidation of the new filaments, etc. At this point I harangued his nibs on the whole process which probably bewildered him even more.  From here he visited the metal shop where we had a couple of lathes, the carpenter, and the Stores. We had a nice collection of captured enemy signals equipment here. At this point the General said he wanted to see the Cookhouse. You may remember that this was his speciality. He noted that our method of heating the ovens was non-standard. The method that we were supposed to use was a dreadful drip of oil and water drops onto a hot plate. This used to produce a deposit of fine soot in the flues which blew up every week or so and spoiled all the food. What we were using was a home made device like a large brazing lamp. I got a mild ticking off for not having asked for permission to use it. After this he got quite chatty and agreed that in all units of the army, rice, mustard and marmalade always accumulated as the troops ate very little of these however they were presented to them.

Then came the command to lift the covers off the Grease-traps. They were spotless. He eyed the Fly netting and spotted the little slit in it. I was well and truly ticked off. After this he cheered up and departed.

I heard later that he had been impressed. Anyway the place was still working when I returned home eighteen months later.

Eric Vast.- October 1994.

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