The Royal Signals Chicken Farm

One day when prowling around the camp area I came across two of the lesser members of our unit filling in what looked very much like a grave. Being in jovial mood I enquired as to whether they were disposing of the remains of anybody. However I was assured that they were burying lentils.

Now that year Egypt had an enormous crop of these, and they had sold the surplus to our authorities to feed the army. Unfortunately the lentils had a black skin and when cooked yielded a nasty looking grey sludge which nobody cared to eat.

I had ordained a few weeks before that no more of the things should be ordered from the depot. The two lads said that Sgt. Elms the cook (a chef from the Queens Hotel In Hastings) had organised the burial, so off we all went to sort things out. That Worthy said that the drivers collecting the rations had been induced to take unordered lentils by bribing them with free tins of sardines. Such fish were seldom issued in the rations and were greatly esteemed. He thought that they had in fact handed overall of their prizes to him for general distribution. I told them to stop it and learned that there were several other caches of the beastly things around the camp.

The officer in charge of food distribution was a weirdo. When he first arrived in Abassia the depot had many crates of tinned peas. It could be seen that the peas had been loaded some one way up and the rest the other way up. This chap had the whole unit busily putting the tins all one way up so that all the labels could be read. He also put the Corporal on a ‘Fizzer’ for untidiness. Not a man you could love.

I had a friend at that time who was working for one of the private armies, probably SCE, who had a unit just along the track to the north of Pyramids Road. It sent and received to and from agents in occupied lands. He had to live on the premises. As a young man in the signals he had taken part in the first tests on wireless equipment used in tanks, This was a massive breadboard all unprotected giving one Kw of medium wavelength with a thousand volts on the valve anodes.

On retiring from the army he had acquired a farm in Essex, but had been dragged back as he was on the reserve. This had not pleased him. To feel more at home he had bought a small number of the local hens, a bird very like an Old English Game Bantam. The average Egyptian never reckoned to feed his flock it had to forage for food itself. The result was that it laid only a tiny egg and very few of these. My friend had found however, that if they were fed corn or pulse the size of the eggs and the frequency of their arrival greatly improved. I used to visit this unit quite often to deliver Crystals and have a natter with him and I told him the tale of the lentils. He thought a bit and asked me if I would exchange lentils for a supply of eggs. So as eggs are seldom issued in rations and are a very necessary ingredient in cakes I agreed at once. He said that he reckoned the Arial site would accommodate a few hundred fowls and that expansion was under way. I queried whether his masters would be very pleased. He seemed to think that as long as he produced a steady stream of cyphered messages nobody was even likely to visit the place.

That may well have been so. The SOF at the time were expanding rapidly. Their large villa near GHO was bursting at the seams. They had put the actual cypher Officers over the other side of Pyramids Road in a large empty Villa. Opposite them in a disused mansion was a far more interesting establishment. That favourite watering hole of the Royal Navy had been bombed out of Alexandria by the dreaded Luftwaffe to whom nothing was sacred. The “Sphynx” had actually come to rest by its namesake the “Sphinx”. There were even those who thought that the site of the Cypher Officers  had been chosen to facilitate visits by the Top Brass to the pleasures of the Sphynx. Being on the edge of the desert and being surrounded by tombs this was a good area to encounter at night Djinns and Afreets. At least according to the next door peasant farmer. One of the two ( or more likely of their female counter parts ) had reputedly chased a signalman down the Track one night. All hairy and horrible it was. My mate reckoned it was a stray donkey.

The chickens flourished. I paid a number of visits and swopped lentils for eggs. On my last visit things were getting a bit out of hand. The place was smelly and the hens had learnt to hang about the Cookhouse instead of scattering.

Soon after I got a phone call. “Don’t bring any more feed.’ The whole lot had gone dead in a few days. A friendly Vet diagnosed fowl cholera. In those days Cholera was not a nice thing to catch and there was panic. However, the Vet insisted that humans did not catch the disease, but that the area was likely to be certain death to chickens for many years to come.

The most extraordinary thing was that not a word of reproach was ever received by any of the parties involved from on high!

Eric Vast. May 1997.

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