I wrote this diary of events, Egypt 1951 to 1956, from the point of view of an army family, mainly to educate my grandchildren, but it may also revive memories of Moascar for those who shared that time with us.
We, the Martin family, arrived back in Egypt- on King Farouk's wedding day, 6th May 1951, not his first marriage, of course, just as we were no strangers to Port Said. The atmosphere had a celebratory feeling which we liked to think was because we had wisely returned to this strange but exhilarating land that wouldn't let us go. From the port, we crossed the harbour to the quieter Port Fouad where the British Army had a transit/leave camp. My father, who was an officer in the Royal Engineers, had two weeks leave to settle his family before he had to report for work at the R.E. Stores Depot at Fayid on the Suez Canal. Fayid was not familiar to us, as we had previously lived in Moascar, the army camp on the Bitter Lakes, a bus ride away from Ismailia. On completion of our last three-year 'python' in Egypt, we had spent an uncomfortable twelve months in Inverness, Scotland. A greater contrast in weather could not have been imagined, and we were all relieved and very grateful to be hack 'home'. For the next two weeks, we stretched out under the warming sun while our diet returned to the familiar delights of mango and grapes, melon and dates. You just have to close your eyes to experience the bliss of this lifestyle - we were back in heaven.
My mother, my younger sister and I remained at Port Fouad when my father left for the Canal Zone. In preference to living at Fayid, my father had arranged for us to rent a house in a suburb of Ismailia from where a network of army busses transported servicemen and civilians who worked for the forces, to all the work centres throughout the area. It did not take too long for us to slip back into the routine we had known in previous years. Dad would leave on the Fayid bus at about 6.30 a.m.- I left later on the shorter journey to Moascar, as I had found employment at Headquarters British Troops in Egypt (HQBTE as it was known), as a junior clerk, starting work on my eighteenth birthday in July. My young sister was still of school age, so she travelled daily to Moascar, to the army school, the school which I had attended for the last three years of my education. Everything was so comfortably familiar - the camp, the school, the church, the French beach on the Suez Canal, for which my father had always been lucky enough to be given a family membership card. Almost every day after work and school, we made our way separately to the beach where we had a picnic lunch together. As work started early in the Middle East everything stopped at about 1 p.m. by which time the heat was too prohibitive. We swam and then sunned ourselves on the green lawns or soft sands of the 'Jardin des Enfants' until the last bus left at 5.30 p.m. Cool breezes blew softly as the sun made a final attempt to singe our tingling skin. We moved out, past Ferry Point, through the town of Ismailia, where we alighted, while the bus continued across the Sweet Water Canal, past the Arab Village and on into Moascar camp.
Warm starlit evenings were spent either shopping for groceries in French or Egyptian stores and boutiques, or taking in a movie at one of the local open-air cinemas. Nothing had changed; this was the life we loved. The streets of Ismailia were welcoming to army and air force personnel of all ranks, together with their families. Restaurants and the ice-cream parlour of 'Groppis' were packed after dark. Colour, light, noise and enjoyment could be experienced nightly.
There was a newspaper kiosk at the spot where all the busses picked up the service personnel for work. The English language paper was a necessity to pass the time travelling. Headlines on the morning of September 10th declared that the Egyptian government had 'Abrogated the Treaty of 1936' This meant nothing to me, a teenager with no knowledge of the machinations of governments. I did my best to listen to the conversation going on in the bus, but I was no wiser as to what consequences were implied by the newspaper report. Even at work I couldn't grasp what it meant and I didn't want to appear ignorant, so I didn't enquire. When I met up with my parents on the beach that afternoon I could at last ask the questions that had been floating around in my head. Like everyone I had encountered that day, my father seemed amused at the nerve of the Egyptians' action, but at least he explained. "The Anglo-French Suez Canal is a very lucrative company which the Egyptians would like to get their hands on but the British forces in the Canal Zone are here to protect British and French interests. It would take an army to wrest control from us, and it will take more than the Egyptian army to do that. There are many in the country who would like to get rid of the British altogether, but there are equally as many who would lose a lot if the British left."
So, that was that, and the talk moved on to other things like 'who wants another cup of tea' and 'have we got time for a last swim before getting changed'. We were aware that there had been anti-British riots in Cairo in support of the 'abrogation' but things had died down very quickly. Our daily routines continued in the knowledge that the politicians in London had the matter in hand.
October the first was the date, each year, that the British Army changed out of Khaki Drill uniform into the thick Battle Dress for the oncoming winter and, as usual, the first few weeks of the month were unbearably hot! There was much cursing at the early changeover but true Brits took it, to a man. With minds centred on the discomfort of 'prickly heat' brought on by the rough texture of the winter uniform, little notice was paid to reports that Britain had drafted a new treaty to present to Cairo. That was put on the table on the 14th of October. The next day, obviously without too much consideration, Egypt flatly rejected the offer. In Moascar camp after work a few days later, those of us who lived beyond the camp perimeter boarded busses to return home. Just after 1 p.m. we arrived at the Main Gate, where we came to a full stop. On investigation, we observed that all the busses were lined up before the closed gates. Nobody was going anywhere. Rumour filtered through to us that a mob of 'students', mainly from the Cairo University, had arrived in Ismailia from the capital. They had massed at the railway station, moved through the town and targeted blocks of flats and detached houses where British forces families were known to live. Where they were able to gain entry they looted and damaged property, throwing furniture, bedding and clothing from balconies to the noisy crowd below.
My sister had, by chance, not attended school that day, as she was ill with a sore throat. I knew she was at home with my mother in New Arishia, the suburb that had sprung up over the last few years, specifically to accommodate British families. Speculators had eagerly joined the housing market, knowing that the British could pay higher rentals than the local population. Blocks of apartments had spread further and further across the open sands beyond the edge of Ismailia.
So far, there had been no reports of violence inflicted on British people in town that morning but I knew my mother would be very vulnerable in our flat with a sick child to care for. They would not be able to run from the mob. They were stuck right in the path of the irate students who were seeking British homes. They were alone, except for our Egyptian maid, Aminah. My father, I guessed, was probably on his way from Fayid, not knowing what awaited him at home. For over two hours we waited in the busses at the main gate with no official information on the situation. Army busses were Dodge 3 ton vehicles with three rows of seats running down the length of the body. Top and sides were covered with canvas, but the back, where the steps were, was open. Though we were shaded from the sun, it was very hot and dry being stationary for so long. Whatever measures the British army was taking to remove the student crowds from the Canal Zone, for apparently they were not confined to Ismailia, must have been executed in short time because by mid-afternoon we resumed our journey. As we arrived at the main gate, each bus stopped to pick up two armed soldiers who took up position at the end of the seats facing outwards from the back of the bus. Through the gate we turned right, passing the AKC cinema on our left, crossed the railway line and then over the Sweet Water Canal. Turning left onto the main road, we drove towards the town of Ismailia. All was quiet. We saw nothing unusual on our entire trip, no crowds, no police, just the empty road. After dropping off the people who lived in flats in town, we continued into New Arishia. Still everything was quiet. Obviously, there was no problem here, because we were allowed to leave the bus, without escorts, and proceed to our homes. It was hard to believe that anything menacing could have happened here.
Half an hour later my father arrived home. The story was that the students, en masse, arrived in our suburb of New Arishia at about mid-morning, ransacking those flats which belonged to British people who were out at work. Our flat was one of two with a central entrance hall. The full-time Egyptian watchman who normally sat just inside the gate at the hallway, warned my mother to close all window shutters and stay quiet inside. As my mother was closing up and preparing to lock the front door our maid, Aminah, who had been with us for three years during our previous time in Egypt, became agitated. She said she would have to leave or the mob might beat her for working for British people. My mother was sympathetic, sending Aminah on her way well before the arrival of the students. My mother and sister sat in the darkened bedroom and waited. They heard the noisy crowd enter our road and approach our building where the guard assured the students that 'no British lived here'. Through a crack in the shutter, my mother observed the angry Egyptians screaming, gesturing and even throwing the occasional rock at the buildings in our road. Amazingly, there amongst the rabble was Aminah, thoroughly enjoying the occasion now that she was 'safe' on the winning side. It left a bitter taste after all the years we had known and trusted the motherly Egyptian woman. Many such 'valued' employees turned coat when the opportunity arose. My father was furious. He had such respect and trust for the local people he worked with; it saddened him that they could betray the very people who had provided work for so many Egyptian employees over the years. The only saving grace as far as Aminah was concerned was the fact that she obviously had not informed the mob that we, a British family, lived in the flat. But then, to do that she would have to admit that she was more closely associated with us than would be good for her.
Because non-British employees could not be trusted, it was decided, overnight, that all foreigners would be excluded from camps, both army and air force, throughout the Canal Zone. When we arrived at work the next day, there had been a personnel shake-up. Our office had employed only two locals, one a very clever male clerk, Mr Moisey who worked on currency exchange rates, and the other a waiter who spent best part of the day keeping our Chief Clerk supplied with re-hydrating liquids. At regular intervals enormous glasses of orange cordial arrived on the 'Chief's' desk. He speedily dispatched the cooling liquid, only to have it re-emerge on his sweating forehead in a regular flow. So, now we had no 'Senusi' to answer the WOII's bellow. One of the pink-cheeked lads in the office, a conscript doing his two-year National Service, now had the added task of keeping the fluid flowing through the Chief Clerk's system. Apart from the loss of the local employees, work had to go on as usual in the offices of HQ BTE. Cloistered as we were, we did not know what events were taking place beyond the camp. More troops arrived in the country, mainly from the nearby island of Cyprus, and four British warships took up position in the waters off Port Said. All key points on the Suez Canal were soon back under the control of the British forces.
One item of news, which did hit the newspaper headlines on the 6th of November, was the declaration, by the Egyptian Government, of a state of emergency. This must have set alarm bells ringing. British civilians living outside military camps were now at risk of attack At dawn on the 20th of November a complete evacuation of all British families, army and air force, began, without prior notice. So well planned and coordinated was the move that each family was allocated a military truck, complete with armed guards, that moved everything from the home, furniture, pets and people. On the stroke of 10 a.m., the convoy of trucks left Ismailia unmolested. The Egyptians were taken by complete surprise. Few of them gathered on the streets to watch this exodus. We drove to Timsah Camp, an army recreation area on the outskirts of Ismailia where each head of family reported for housing allocation within the Canal Zone. Those with insufficient 'points' for years of service had the tough task of informing their wives and children that they would immediately be returning to the United Kingdom without 'Dad'. My father had been a soldier since the age of seventeen so there was no doubt that we would be staying in Egypt. Consequently, we were soon on our way to Fayid, my father's place of work, again in armed convoy with those who had also been allocated housing at that base. For two weeks we were accommodated, together with one other family, in a hastily converted office block while housing was sought for us. We saw little of Fayid itself, being confined, temporarily, to the area around our rooms. We ate in the Officers' Mess with the single officers. In return for this hospitality, the women of our two families set up an 'ironing service' for the officers who were now forced to do their own laundry. We ironed uniforms, which they had washed by hand, relieving them of this time-consuming chore. During this time, we heard that Ismailia had been taken over by Egyptian police and troops. It didn't look as though we would ever be able to live there again. The previous co-existence of all nationalities in that happy, bustling town was over.
Whether my father had requested it, or if it was just good fortune, we soon found ourselves on our way back to Moascar, where my father was to take charge of the Royal Engineers Stores Depot, the job he had performed for three years on his previous tour. What a relief! None of us liked Fayid at all and we were very happy to be returning to Moascar. Besides, I still had a job waiting for me at HQ BTE. The bungalow we were allocated in the camp was very small, just two bedrooms, but it was adequate for us as we two girls always shared a room. The garden, apart from a small grass lawn in front, was sand all round with a six-foot reed fence separating us from a newly erected tent encampment. Every spare corner of the camps now housed the overflow of troops drafted into the Canal Zone. Though we were close enough to see the lights inside the tents at night through the reed matting of the fence, we were never disturbed by loud noise from our new neighbours. In fact, we were never aware of their presence except for one occasion when my father's pet rabbit, Harvey, escaped from his pen on the front lawn and made his way under the back fence. Two soldiers turned up at our door with Harvey. How they knew where he had come from was never revealed, but return him they did. Knowing how sparse the army rations must have been at that time, I have no doubt that the temptation to introduce Harvey to a cooking pot must have been very great. All the more commendable was the gesture of returning him!
My return to EME Branch of HQ BTE was a relief. I enjoyed my work, even though I found it quite exacting. As a clerk, I was being trained in statistics, the troop movements and regulations governing such movement as published in Army Regulations. Once my mentor and teacher, a REME captain, came into the main office to ask me, how I could have "mislaid a whole division of REME troops?" He was laughing, but the error on my part could have been extremely serious. I was mortified. It therefore came as a surprise, a challenge and even a relief to be informed on my return to the office that my services henceforth would be required not as a clerk, but as a typist. All three regular typists from our branch had been caught up in the operation to limit the number of service families in Moascar, and so their desks were vacant. I entered the typists' office expecting it to be empty but there was already someone there, a Sergeant from the REME Workshops who had been seconded to the HQ office to take over the duties that Mr. Moisey usually did. His function was to assist the Major in the financial machinations of REME. Exchange rates and currency control proved as much of a problem to him as the format of Top Secret letters and memos were to me. We battled on together. Occasionally I was able to help him convert piastres to pounds, but unfortunately he was unable to aid me with the tussle I had with the typewriter. Relief came, none too soon, in the return of the head typist to our office. She had been temporarily evacuated to Cyprus, but her husband who was a Major in the Postal Service was allocated tented married accommodation that had been hastily erected on vacant ground near the one and only roundabout on the main road, the Mall. Her return was invaluable to me as she taught me all the requirements of our particular branch of HQ BTE, as far as the typing was concerned, and when she was unexpectedly returned to the United Kingdom some two months later, leaving me on my own again, I was able to hold the fort.
The situation in Egypt seemed to settle down a lot. Families were again permitted to shop in Ismailia, provided they were accompanied by an armed serviceman. Army bus services resumed, at least as far as town, Things were almost back to normal except that we were no longer able to go to the French Beach, which was over five miles from Moascar, and nobody was permitted in town after dark. Things that were still within our bounds were swimming at the YMCA beach which was about ten minutes bus ride from the camp, on the Bitter Lakes and adjacent to the British owned Yacht Club, and visits to the cinemas. The AKC cinema was just outside the Main Gate of Moascar, on the 'safe' side of the railway line and within observation of guards manning the gate. Another cinema was the Astra, situated within the Air Force Camp, which shared a fenced border with Moascar. All these facilities were well-guarded and considered safe for families and off-duty troops. The time we spent within the confines of the garrison during the Egyptian disturbances were relatively peaceful. The only report of enemy gunfire came through the REME Sergeant who worked temporarily in the office. He told us that his sleeping quarters, which he shared with other senior ranks at REME Station Workshops, had been fired on from the other side of the railway line outside the perimeter. As a precaution, they had lined the outer wall of the barrack block with spare mattresses, closing off the vulnerable windows. Apart from that incident, we lived in peace and were fortunate to continue our comfortable service life.
All this changed again about the middle of 1952. Different episodes of unrest in Cairo and the Canal Zone had been monitored by Britain, and troops were sent occasionally to quell mounting violence amongst the usually peaceful Egyptians. The danger of attacks on military personnel, or worse, on families, had to be faced. Outside activities were once again cancelled. We were, from then on, a true garrison encampment, living, working and spending our leisure time within the perimeter.
In July, we heard the news that King Farouk had been forced to abdicate in favour of his nine month old son, which we took as a sign that Egypt would very soon become a republic. Royalty had no power any more over the land of the Pharos; the tradition of thousands of years had been trampled under the feet of the youth from the University of Cairo. Moascar camp was large enough to cover most needs of the inhabitants within, apart from the luxury of a beach to swim from, but we did have a very nice swimming pool. Most people were content with what entertainment was on offer, and work kept us busy during the extended morning session. We were in no danger at that time, and led quite agreeable and comfortable lives. Little news of what was taking place in the rest of the country filtered through to us. This tended to make us complacent.
Things were so normal that I met and married my life partner during those years. Our engagement party in June, held at REME Station Workshops Sergeants' Mess (yes, he was inevitably REME), was followed by our wedding in the Garrison Church in January 1953. In February, we had to return to Britain as my husband's three-year tour of duty ended. We left Moascar from my parents' home in a three-ton truck, along with a few other families returning to the UK. The usual armed guards were stationed at the back of the truck, facing the road. We travelled to Port Said, starting early in the morning, hoping to avoid roadside snipers, and we had luck on our side as we saw no movement at all along the whole length of the deserted road. There was confusion at the docks but we were eventually bundled onto a lighter, which took all the families out to the ship, the SS Lancashire, waiting out in the bay. We sailed before dark, leaving Egypt with the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps on the breakwater bidding us farewell.
From the safety and isolation of England, we reviewed the fate of the British troops and HQ BTE with sadness, in the knowledge that we would never see Moascar, our home, again. My parents and sister returned to the UK in 1954. For the first time they left Egypt by plane instead of by ship. No doubt, they missed the usual exodus from Post Said, but by that time, it had become far too dangerous to transport families by road from the Canal Zone to the Mediterranean. In Cairo, Colonel Nasser had first removed the son of King Farouk from power and followed that up by seizing total power for himself, ousting his 'partner' General Neguib. June 1956 saw the last British troops leave Egypt, which immediately prompted Nasser to seize the Suez Canal from Anglo-French control. This of course incensed the British and French governments who ordered marines into Port Said and Port Fouad with the intention of returning the canal to its 'rightful owners'. For obvious political reasons the United States backed the United Nations in passing a resolution that foreign troops should withdraw from Egypt. Britain and France were forced to comply and halted their operation on the 8th of November 1956.
That effectively drew a line under all service operations in Egypt by the British. Middle East Land Forces ceased to exist. We often wonder what happened to HQ BTE, the garrison church of Saint George, and of Moascar itself. My husband and I returned once for a day trip to the pyramids - we were on a cruise that visited both Israel and Egypt. As the coach travelled from Port Said to Cairo we glimpsed a sign indicating the road to Ismailia, but that was as close as we came to a little camp in the desert that we had happily called home, Moascar - gone, but never forgotten.