Suez and Beyond
Within eight weeks of British troops leaving the area, Nasser had ignored all the agreements his country had made with the British and French governments and nationalised it. The papers were full of it and were of course taking sides as to what should or should not be done about it. Things began to hot up when the British government began to call up Reservists and units of the Territorial Army. A buzz went round the camp as to our possible involvement and this time it was spot on. Within days the Gordons took over our area and we were franticly packing up our gear bound for Malta.
We boarded the aircraft carrier HMS Theseus with all our stores and transport and headed off to join No 3 Commando Brigade, which with Nos 40 and 42 Commando was gearing up for the invasion of Port Said. We had no interest at all in the politics of the situation, only the mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension of what was ahead. On landing at Grand Harbour we made straight for Chian Tuffia Bay where someone had already set up a tented camp and settled in.
On the sandy beach were rows of bulky tank-like vehicles that turned out to be 'Buffalos', which were an early version of tracked assault craft. Right, we thought, this is what we will be using for our landing. Wrong. We had all forgotten the long held duty of the forces to never do what looks simple but rather find some awkward and time consuming way to carry out training. As it turned out we were to use standard landing craft that were based in Valetta. So every day we trundled off in our trucks for training miles away while another unit passed us going the way heading for our camp to train in the Buffalos.
We were told very little of what was going on but as our training consisted of attacks on harbour jetties and quays in our landing craft it did not take a genius to work out that the main thrust was to be straight at the Canal entrances. As it turned out we were right about the main attack but wrong about our part of it. Along with our training the army were also hard at it, and a right mess they were making of the Island. Tank units had been shipped out to Malta and were engaged in training with great vigour on rocky stretches of land that was of no obvious use to anybody. The only problem was they often had to cross or travel short distances down local roads. The roads turned out to be far too narrow to accommodate the tanks with the result that often the monsters were travelling along the top of roadside walls and grinding them to rubble. No doubt after the trouble had cooled down the farmers and local council were well reimbursed for their trouble but at the time relations between the Maltese people and we troops was not what you would say very close.
We had been in Malta for some considerable time now while the governments of Britain, France, and Israel made their plans and moved their forces. Quietly, and without any explanation, we found our officers being either replaced or moved about in the unit. Our Captain and one of our young Lieutenants vanished, possibly moved to supply or something, as it was obvious even to us that they had their limitations. Our captain was famous for hopeless map reading, and the lieutenant was nervous all the time he was in charge of men. In their place we got a major with a vivid scar on his face and a chest full of medals (some American that he won in Korea) and a no nonsense lieutenant so confident and glowing with charisma that it was certain he was destined for a speedy rise up the ranks.
The Marines did not consist of Commando units only. There was the Special Boat Section, Artic Warfare Cadre, Jungle Survival, etc. and to these units went officers that showed unusual talents or outstanding leadership. When the Suez Crisis blew up these men were all clamouring for a bit of the action and the units were glad to get them back. Our new troop commander was a quiet sort of chap but our sergeants either knew or knew of him as you could see they practically worshiped him. He drove them and us at the preparations for the invasion with a subtle vigour that left us exhausted but strangely happy every day.
It wasn't all hard work, however, as the officers and the Navy brass decided that we should hold a dance and set about finding out what response this would have with the fair sex on the Island. We never ever heard what percentage of local girls could be expected to turn up and the answer was in the fact that the only ones to make an appearance were WRENs and their equivalent from the Army and RAF, and they lost no time in informing us that they had to be threatened or bribed to turn up. We were all a bit put out by this until some of the old hands gave us a potted history of the relationship between the Marines and the locals. It more or less went along the usual approach of garrison towns. It was all right to relieve us of our last penny on booze, exorbitant taxi fares, etc but don't screw our women and piss on our pavements. On the day before sailing we had moved ourselves with all our equipment onto our aircraft carrier and made up for this insult that night by giving the Red Light area of Valetta a good work over and then finished the night with a series of running fights with the police. We did not have far to go when the authorities brought in the Military Police to help, and we decided discretion was the best way to end a lovely evening.
It was a good job we had a couple of days sailing before the invasion, as we were a sad, white faced looking lot that fell in next morning for the first of our instruction lectures on what lay ahead. However, we were all soon wide awake and shaking our heads in disbelief when the first bit of news was that at the last moment our task had been changed. Out was the plan to assault over a harbour area with landing craft but instead we were now going to assault a beach area in helicopters. Even the sergeants who had been briefed on this earlier were still looking a bit dumb struck.
It wasn't the news of using helicopters that surprised us, as we had all flown and jumped out of them before, it was the fact that the Whirlwinds that the ship carried were much larger than those used in Cyprus and there was much to learn in getting troops loaded down with combat gear and extra ammunition out of them quickly and as safely as possible. So the helicopters were lined up on the deck and we set to work preparing for the first ever assault landing by any army and we had only hours to train for it.
As a result the trajectory of the shells were too flat
and many ricocheted off inland.
As we neared Port Said we were all prepared for the landing wearing light fighting gear only (our 'Bergens' with our spare kit and K rations were to follow us later). It was true they followed us but somebody forgot to pass on the information that we were not attacking the harbour by landing craft now but hitting the beach by helicopter. As a result our gear was put ashore in the wrong place and we had very little to eat the whole day. Mind you, I doubt if we would have been very interested in lunch anyway, as we had other things on our minds and our bellies were in a delicate state as a result. On top of our normal supply of personal ammo we carried quantities of mortar bombs, Energa grenades and spare mags for the Bren guns, spread out evenly amongst us. All-in-all quite a load. We were not allowed on deck until our turn to load up and this did not help our nerves one bit. We could hear the sounds of shelling and bombs going off for what seamed hours and I must admit that my brain was whirring with all kind of thoughts. At last our squad was summoned on deck and we made our way up narrow stairs and passage ways loaded down and bumping into everything on the way.
Strangely as soon as we came out into daylight all fear seamed to leave us for the moment and we clustered at the ship's rail staring at the sight of the British and French invasion fleet. It was incredible - there were craft of every shape and size all around us, and some were already making their way back into station having unloaded their men and material somewhere ashore, while others were offloading still more into smaller landing craft.
A huge pall of heavy black smoke was pouring skyward from some fuel depot that had either been shelled or bombed and one or two large buildings were also alight. There was also a continuous thump and whine of gun fire as escort ships laid down a pattern of fire well inland of the troops who were already ashore. There were no helicopters on deck, so we assumed they were somewhere on the beach delivering squads of our buddies, so we were directed to our marked out positions as practiced and waited. Soon we could see the craft approaching, not in well formed formations, but strung out at irregular intervals and different heights, and it was apparent that at this stage of the operations the pilots were not in the least interested in pretty flying, but just getting in and out with their loads and trusting the opposition were lousy shots.
Our craft came thumping down onto the deck and we all scrambled aboard, and held on for the expected lurch as we took off, but instead we watched as the pilots and crew calmly got off and stood around chatting or walked around stretching their legs. One or two high ranking officers came over and engaged the pilots in animated conversation and made some sort of notes on maps, as they had, of course, been receiving constant reports over the radio but I suppose there was nothing to match face-to-face reporting. After what seemed ages the crew climbed aboard and with an escalating roar of engines we were on our way, and at this point my bowels hinted that I had better not open my legs too much or they might just cause me a bit of embarrassment. Nobody spoke, nobody looked at one another; we had all picked a far off point either out the door or on the floor and just stared. "Out! Out! Out!" screamed a voice from somewhere, and like an elephant relieving itself after a particularly heavy meal we poured out the door of the craft landing on top of one and other and spread out on the sand. Off went our transport in what seemed a rather hasty exit and as it made its way back for its next bundle of nervous men with the sound of its engines slowly diminishing we became aware of the sounds of outgoing and incoming small arms fire.
I checked my rear end area and was relieved to find that the overwhelming explosion that had happened to me as my feet hit the beach had only been wind. Our sergeant and corporal marshalled us together and we moved up to form a line along a promenade wall where we laid out our forward markers (this was a series of vivid coloured strips that troops would lay out in the form of arrows indicating to any supporting fighter plane the forward positions we had reached). This had hardly been finished when there was a terrifying scream of engines and a blur of explosions as one of our own Navy attack fighters did a strafing run straight up the beach. It has never been explained to me how a pilot supporting a beach landing that had been progressing for some time could possibly think to track his run straight along the waters edge. Thankfully no one in our squad was hit but many boys in a following wave of choppers caught the brunt of the attack and two of them were lads I had gone through basic training with. After the shock of this, and probably because of it, what happened next was straight out of some 'Carry On' film. We were all lined up behind this wall fearfully taking in the area in front of us over which we were getting ready to move.
Over the road was a line of buildings, mostly blocks of flats, which were all linked together by a wall with one or two gates in them, and we were all squinting at the doors and windows straining to catch a site of the 'enemy'. Nothing moved and we were sure that surely with all the activity on the beach any defenders would have moved back but you never know. Suddenly a figure holding a rifle appeared as if from nowhere right in front of us and began to trot along the length of this wall. Without waiting, we all opened up on him blazing away with great gusto. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at us, and without thinking we also stopped firing. Then he was off again this time as fast as his feet could go, and off we went again firing at him with a trail of bullet holes following his track and dust flying all around him. He must have been very good at his prayers that morning because not one of us hit him and he scampered round the end of the buildings and out of site. Our sergeant by this time was going crazy stamping his feet in the sand and crying out for us to cease fire and take aim all at the same time.
Once he got us under control we got the bollocking of our lives, and this was not the type of lecture we had screamed at us by our instructors during training, this was meant to be understood and we certainly got the message from the fact that we were wasting precious ammunition right up to his last statement of, "Shooting the next bastard who let off wasted shots." I often wonder if some Egyptian officer was watching the beach through his binoculars trying to work out what tactic was being planed with this squad of Marines sitting in a row on the sand with a NCO lecturing and waving his hands about. It was a different set of men that crossed the road after that incident, as nothing beats reality for teaching someone the facts of life; you didn't stop somebody by just pointing your rifle in his general direction and pulling the trigger, you forced yourself to get control of your fear and take aim. Very difficult but a life saver.
We got over the road with no trouble and set about clearing the line of buildings. It began by us following the set pattern of bunging a grenade in the front door and then following up the explosion with two men rushing forward to clear any occupants. Next was a burst of fire up the stairs followed by a rush to the first landing, then along the passage clearing each flat as we went. But it soon became obvious that to continue at this rate would take all day and we would run out of supplies, also it was becoming clear that all opposition had either fled or were bent on a suicidal ambush and we did not believe it was the latter. So our officer decided on a quicker approach. "Right sergeant", he said " two or three to a building, quick charge up two or three floors and kick in a few doors and let's see what happens".
This was done and to everyone's delight the officer had guessed it right, as we did not find a single person not even a cat. One thing we did find was that not all Egyptians were the poor scruffy lot depicted in the films some were very rich indeed and had been living a life of luxury in these very premises and furthermore they had left behind quite a lot of their belongings in their hasty exit. We, of course, having been trained to be clean and tidy took it upon ourselves to remove certain items that may have tempted some passing thief.
And so the first half of the day progressed with us catching nobody in the buildings but getting more and more sniper fire brought down on us as we progressed street-by-street away from the beach. By now I had been attached to the Bren gunner and his No 2 to act as rear watch and we had been positioned at a road junction to cover another advance. The officer had been on the radio for some time and had been informed that we were actually getting ahead of the rest of the street clearing squads and to call a halt before we got ourselves into a possibly dangerous situation. The sergeants set about getting us back to safer positions and shouted to us that there had been a change to orders and for us to get ready to move on a signal, which would be a grenade going off. Unfortunately, with all the gunfire we only got snatches of the message and as we had been going forward all day we thought they meant us to move up another street. Off went the grenade and off we went hell for leather to the next corner the two gunners getting down behind some Egyptian sand bags and myself further back in a door way. We spent a minute or two checking out the area and when convinced that it looked clear of opposition we looked back ready to give them the all clear and cover their advance. They looked miles away and were firing their rifles in the air and waving their arms about pointing back toward where most of the lads were in cover. It took a minute or two for us to work it out what they meant until almost all together we said, "Oh shit, we went the wrong way!" We didn't wait for any instructions or diversionary explosions this time. The Bren gunner, even though he was last to get to his feet and carried the heaviest load, was first back.
There were a few harsh words aimed at us from our officer and shouts of, "Here comes John Wayne and his mates" from the lads. We had the situation repeated to us and were told to take a break for a fag while they waited for instructions to continue the advance. We went to take cover down in a lower pavement area in front of a large building and just as I got below street level I received an enormous smack on the head knocking me clean off my feet. I was still conscious but badly dazed and trying to figure out who or what hit me, and there were people jumping over me and even on me as they tried to work out what had happened. Next I was grabbed by two lads and hauled inside the building where I felt someone stick a cigarette in my mouth and could here another shouting for a medic. I put my hand on my head to nurse the pain away and it felt sticky when I removed it and looked it was covered in blood. Someone poured water on my head and poked about a bit then slapped me on the shoulder saying, "You're okay mate, it's only a few little nicks and they should stop bleeding in a few minutes" and with that plunked my beret back on my head.
The pain was just as bad as the first time and I let out a strangled scream and then told him what I thought of Navy sick bay attendants. When I finally got myself together I discovered that a 'Gypo' machine gunner had remained hidden in the building opposite until seeing us all troop down for our rest he decided this was too good a chance to miss and let off a long burst . It had ripped along the wall just above our heads and I had been unlucky (or lucky) enough to get a batch of splinters of stonework on my head. We were all a bit shaken at this turn of events as since leaving the beach area all incoming fire had been random and mostly over our heads and this was the first time we had been directly in some Egyptian's sights. In all honesty I had the shakes for the rest of that day, my mind going over and over what might have been, and I did not feel a bit like John Wayne.
Soon the radio man was receiving instructions and we had to venture out into the open again. Our new major acted as if nothing had happened and was out on the pavement chatting away to the sergeants and we split up into our squads and moved off. The general thought was that after loosing off a full magazine at us the 'Gypo' would have made a hasty retreat back to his mates where he would no doubt claim to have wiped out a full Commando patrol. I tried hard to agree with the consensus of opinion but the hairs on the back of my neck told a different story and I tensed myself for the next burst. This did not happen and after half an hour I was back to as near normal as a person could be in the situation.
We then ran into two pretty gruesome situations. By now quite a lot of civilians were emerging from cellars eager to explain that they were not Egyptians but other nationals residing and working in Port Said and were on our side, or were genuine locals but had always hated Nasser. They were all terrified with the gunfire and shelling but still insisted on being rescued and generally got in every one's way even when we threatened to shoot them.
We treated everything they said with suspicion but when two very European looking women approached and told us in faultless English that they knew where an officer was hiding our officer decided to take a look and motioned for three of us to follow him, adding if anything happens, "Shoot the two bitches first." They led us into a smart block of flats and informed us of which floor and flat number he was supposed to be in. He maybe was ready to believe them but not that much, and the two protesting women were frog marched up the stairs and pushed through the open door . There followed a prolonged outburst of screams and howls, as out they came face's white and screaming abuse and hatred at us for what we had put them through. Our officer carefully squinted through the gap between the door hinges and then said, It's all right. He seems to have topped himself." We all trooped in and stood in amazement equally horrified at the sight that met our eyes. He had committed suicide and in fact still had the gun in his hand but it was the amount of blood that he had shed that surprised us. God knows what artery or part of his body he had hit but he had spilled every ounce of his blood and it was all over the place. The officer searched through his belongings for maps or any sort of information while the rest of us relieved him of any trophies we could find right down to his blood soaked pistol. We had to hand most of it back outside, however, as our superiors were getting a bit miffed at us all walking about with trophies to take home and they had nothing to show off back in the Mess.
The next situation occurred almost as soon as we got back to our general line of advance. Our sergeant and officer were busy working out where we now were on the map when one of the lads motioned to them to take a closer look at a body lying at their feet. It was almost certain he was dead as he had caught a shot at the side of his temple that had blown the back if his head off and he lay with his brains half in and half out. But as we watched his eyes slowly moved from side to side, somehow or other there was still a flicker of life in him. It was only a matter of time before his end came, and nothing could have been done to save him. The two looked at one another for a moment or two until finally the officer nodded his head whereupon the sergeant put a short burst into him from his Sten gun and the poor man's pain was ended.
Unusual meetings can occur in life and one happened to me that day. Another apprentice at our plumbing company had decided to follow me into the Marines and some six months after me he joined up. After successfully completing his training he was posted to 42 Commando, who were not stationed in Cyprus so the chances of us meeting up were pretty remote. Imagine my surprise when on running round a corner with the rest of the squad I bumped into him. We only had time for a quick hello---cheerio before he was off in the other direction .
Light was fading by now and orders came in to stop for the night and hold positions. We picked out a corner building that gave us good all-round defensive positions and made to cross the road to it when a burst of gunfire sprayed the road in front of us. We were not in the best of positions and had to get over before night time so we were numbered out in pairs and given the following instructions. A grenade would be lobbed in the general direction of where we thought the gunner was and as soon as it went off, making him duck, two of us would dash over the road, and so on, and so on. This went all right until our opponent worked out what was happening and at the next explosion gritted his teeth and pulled the trigger. Down went one of the lads shot clean through the stomach while his mate carried on for a step or two before turning back, grabbing him and started to drag him the rest of the way. All hell let loose with every one on both sides of the street blazing away at the sniper who by now had exposed his position. Somebody must have hit him or we had put the shit up him for on the next two final runs not a shot was fired. By the time I got over last with the Bren gun team the shot Marine was sitting up looking none the worse for his wound and in fact helping with the fixing of his dressings. We all thought he was reacting to shock and would soon collapse for surely a belly wound was very serious. He was a very lucky man indeed as doctors found when they got him back to ship and finally Malta that the bullet had gone clean through him without touching any vital organ and he was sent back to barracks with simple plasters front and back.
After checking out the building we settled down for the night in a large room that appeared to be some sort of store. There were boxes all over the place and bundles all wrapped in cloth laid in rows round the walls. We were by this time completely exhausted by the events of the day and also the thought of a respite from the tension of when you were going to get hit was a great relief.
In the morning we poked about the bundles and found to our horror we had bedded down in an emergency morgue full of Egyptian dead. We quickly found more comfortable accommodation. By this time news had reached us that America and the rest of the United Nations, who had been raising a stink about what Britain and France were doing, had finally got a cease fire agreed. However, we carried on with patrols gathering up weapons and equipment left behind by the enemy. In the process we had a nasty shock when going round the back of the very building we had spent the night we came across two huge Russian-built tanks still as far as we could see in complete working order without a scratch on them. Thank goodness the Egyptian soldier was living up to his reputation as all mouth and no action, as this two monsters could have made mincemeat out of us.
Our unit came upon two items that interested them very much; this was a couple of brand new American Jeeps that some lads found in a garage. The reason for this interest was our 105 mm recoilless anti-tank guns that we had recently been supplied with. They were American-made and had been designed with curved legs and a central front wheel to fit on to the back of their Jeeps. In their wisdom our government had only purchased the guns and we were expected to cart them about on our Land Rovers. No attempt had been made to adapt the legs and as a result the combination was hopeless with the gun waving about all over the place.
The Jeeps promptly had our unit recognition insignia painted on them and were unofficially added to our transport unit. It soon became obvious that Britain and France were in a sticky position, not only with the rest of the world but back home, as there were more and more demonstrations calling for us to move out and in a few days word came down that all the original assault units were to be pulled out of the area to be replaced with fresh ones just arrived. These were the poor sods I mentioned earlier all Blanco and polished steel helmets. No wonder the Army got a bad name from the lads doing national service. They were all of an age that had watched newsreels at the end of the war showing an army fighting in sensible attire such as smocks, etc and here they were years later back in heavy battledress and hob nailed boots.
I mentioned the French, our partners in this little escapade. It always surprises me that while every reporter and pundit were all falling over themselves beating their breasts about how beastly we were killing all these poor Egyptians, nobody ever mentioned the French. While we were under instructions not to use too large calibre guns and to be careful of the civilian population the French did as they pleased. Their Foreign Legion and Para units just mowed down everything in front of them, and the area they landed in was flattened. Mind you my judgment may be coloured in by the fact that they also sailed in with their own official floating brothel, and jealousy can be a nasty thing. Somebody must have thought that things might change back for the worse with the Egyptians having a go again because even though our Brigade moved back to Malta all the heavy stuff remained behind with yours truly put in charge of our stores. I was a bit put out at the thought of missing out in all the celebrations 'Drink Wise' that were being planed but on the whole it finished up quite a nice little number.
There were no stipulated orders for getting up in the morning or parades, we played a lot of football and I managed to learn to drive on one of the purloined jeeps until some snotty officer spotted that I was not one of his drivers and sent me packing. However, all good things come to an end and we had instructions to load up for the trip back to Malta. All our trucks were loaded up and then driven on to big landing craft, and then after they were all lashed down we were allocated various places in the ship to stow our kit and bed down. I landed in the stoker's mess, and mess is a very polite word to describe it. When they built these ships I suppose the designers were told they were for invasion purposes only, which meant we want basics only, no frills, and no frills they got. It was a hot, smelly, sweaty, smoke-filled pit reeking with the smells of oil, grease, unwashed laundry, oh! and of course rum. As it turned out I only ever saw it once more and that was when I ventured down to collect my kit.
If I were a religious man I would say God was punishing us for our evil deeds in Port Said because hardly had we got out to sea when we were hit by a storm and I mean storm. Most holiday makers sunning themselves on a Mediterranean beach may doubt if there is such a thing as storms on this blue placid paradise, but let me assure them there is , and we found the daddy of them all. It may not have been so bad as I remember, but in the slow moving, heavy loaded, flat-bottomed tub we were in, boy were we punished. I have no detailed memory of the trip, and I can not remember who gave me my instructions. I was told later we were doing watch-on-watch off on the main tank deck, but my only recollection is of just one long journey into Hell. I had nothing to eat mainly because every time I went to pass through an outer door into the interior of the ship, the heat, cooking smells and engine noise drove me into more stomach spasms although by this time I had nothing more to bring up. The whole trip until we at last reached Malta was spent on deck, on watch staggering about the deck checking on loose lashings, off watch sitting in the cab of some truck waiting for death to catch up with me.
The agony ended on the last night. When I woke up in the morning in my seat still with my head out the window I found I had arrived in a new world, the sea was calm, the sky was blue, the island was on the horizon and believe it or not I was hungry. We knew when we docked the Military Police would be waiting ready to trawl through our gear hoping to find our plunder so plans had been set in motion even as we loaded the trucks. I suppose there was some sense in their searching because we had an enormous amount of captured pistols and sub machine guns going back with us. No doubt in a few months time they would probably be on the next step back to UK. As I said plans had been put in place and most of the guns along with bulky radios and many boxes full of god knows what and all destined for the officers, had been put in one truck.
As we approached Malta we suddenly swung into a cove and nudged our bows on to the sand. The bow doors swung open the ramp came down and the truck 'chosen for its good grip in sand' was up and away with me holding on for dear life beside the driver. In minutes the ship backed off closed up its bows and innocently made its way to Grand Harbour, Valetta. Looking back I wonder if the police were as ignorant as we thought as surely this was not the first time this dodge had been carried out.
Back in Malta things had changed, as we were now in proper barracks at Medina and life was very comfortable again. Our last time had been a very busy one with little time for the necessities in a Marine's life, namely booze and birds. The first was simple, as all you required was money and a bar but the second was more difficult.
Over the years the Marines had acquired a reputation of being, shall we say, rather boisterous liking nothing better than finishing a night ashore with a bit of a punch up with some Army or RAF types and now we land based Commandoes were suffering. We were not rough, hairy types, like days of old, we were proper gentlemen but for some reason the girls did not believe us, and come to think of it neither did we. So there we were not very popular with the girls in the services and the island now awash with all sorts of servicemen, we were definitely second class citizens so what could a poor lad do. We made do with what we could find. The prostitutes were not a good idea, nearly all being infected and anyhow you never knew if you would land up with a Queen or 'Girly Boy'. This was a new phenomenon to us as we knew about Queers or Poofters but this form of life was new and confusing. Even stone cold sober they could take you in; they dressed and made up just as a girl would, there was none of the brassy looks with over the top wigs, etc. They also took themselves very seriously and you could only go so far with them, then all hell broke loose with screaming and cursing and a fair bit of kicking and punching.
As Malta was a rocky island with a fair amount of cliffs our training continued with our more traditional approach, namely cliff assault. As I had done a fair bit of mountaineering in my younger days I looked upon this as entertainment and enjoyed it immensely. However, it was not to every one's taste, most of the boys were now getting quite used to swanning about in the sun, maybe firing off a few rounds on the ranges or perhaps a bit of revision on map reading. This was all about to change as our next move was to Tripoli for a spell of desert warfare training. After landing and as we made our way to our destination we became aware of the state the countryside was in, as now it was back in Libyan hands. Everywhere were signs of lack of maintenance and blatant laziness. The road surface sometimes vanished under the blowing sand dunes, a desalination works had been stripped of all its machinery and pipe work, probably sold for scrap. Sticking up through the sand-covered fields at the side of the road were the stumps and remains of fruit orchards planted by the Italians during their rule.
There was no excuse for Italy invading and taking over the country but they certainly did a better job of getting the place to work and produce farm goods. It turned out there was nothing special in the mechanics of fighting it was all to do with coping with the sand.
We were stationed at a place with, of all things, the name of 'Waterfall Camp', which some wag must have given it this name as a form of irony and it must have stuck. It was a form of oasis all right but not the shimmering type you would see in films. The camp area was generally hard compacted sand with a fair amount of ordinary trees growing out of it, and further away lay another clump surrounding a small brackish pool which we were told not to touch with a barge pole. Something was contaminating the water and not even the goats that poked about the place would drink from it. Although a general training area for all army or navy units there were no permanent buildings or water and electricity supplies on the site, so each unit picked up a load of tents, generators, food and water bowsers at a depot and set off to set up base on its own. The general idea was to look for a fresh area that had not been used by a previous unit so you did not end up pitching your tent on their old latrines.
We were issued with small two-man tents that we slept under for the first two nights while we laboured to set up the cook house, tents, etc, but when we had some time to ourselves we set to doing a bit of subterranean extensions of our abode. First we marked out the outline of the tent and removed it, next we excavated a hole down to about four feet in depth complete with a flight of steps leading down. This was all possible because the compacted sand had a consistency of sandstone and the sides of the trench held very firm. Next the tent was put on top and fixed down thus giving us a space we could now stand up in.
We did not stop at that as over a period of days we cut alcoves into the sides where books and personal items were kept. As we grew more confident with the strength of the structure we even cut out sleeping alcoves into the sides. All the above embellishments were finished off with wood that we obtained from the abundance of boxes in which our food arrived. Although the weather was wonderful and dry and conditions near perfect it may seem absurd to draw comparisons but it did give us a small taste of what probably happened in some areas of the trenches during the first war. While all this was going on the base staff were engaged in their own little war with the local riff raff who were using the camp as a local 'take away'. The very first morning after our stores arrived vast quantities were discovered missing with very little obvious sign of how the theft had been carried out. We were made aware of the problem of thieving 'wogs' when our unit landed and indeed as well as the usual perimeter guard round the camp an extra couple of lads were posted in the cookhouse / stores area, but still they struck, and what was more amazing we never once saw or even heard one of them. Extra men were added, permanent lights were set up, but although the thefts were drastically cut back we never really beat them. They were truly an amazing race, if someone could harness their skills and then add a bit of guts to them you would have an invincible attack unit.
They were also able to do other amazing things such as the apparent ability to travel as fast as our vehicles. We would be loading up into our trucks to go off to the firing ranges with this one grizzled character who sold bottles of Coco Cola busy peddling his drinks. Finally we would move off and travel several miles to the range leaving him at the side of the road busy packing up his stall, only to come face to face with him when we got down off our transport at the other end. He obviously had a short cut but looking at the maps we could not work it out. Finally there were the suicide boys who would lay up out on the ranges waiting for a dud shell or mortar bomb to land. If one came down within a short distance of them they were out like a shot over to where it landed frantically digging it up and away back behind the dunes. Goodness only knows what they did with them, we can only assume they got out the explosives and used it to refill the bullets for their rifles. Our training went on much the same as it would have in a normal range with the major exception of what we were here to learn, which was how to cope with sand. It really was a horrendous problem, and I take my hat off to the Eighth Army and Rommel's Africa Corps, as God knows how they managed to fight a war of any duration in desert conditions.
One can only assume that the equipment and arms that they used were of a more robust and simple nature, far better to cope with the conditions than the modern and more technical equipment we were now using. Although that argument goes out the door when you consider the rifles and machine guns we used were virtually the same. One of the first things to cause problems were our new Humber Combat Trucks, which we had taken delivery of only just before Suez. They were state of the art 15 cwt trucks with every gismo you could think of fitted. They had anti dust filters fitted to their engine intakes, tyres that were nearly impossible to burst and if they did they re-inflated. There were storage compartments all over the shop all filled with every tool a driver could want and our lucky drivers loved them, that is until they had to turn off the tar roads on to the sand, and there they sank. Every vehicle travelling over desert terrain will come to very soft areas of sand and bog down, that is why every photo of a truck in the dessert shows it with steel panels strapped to its side which are placed under the wheels to obtain grip. The trouble with our trucks was they were already too heavy to travel over average sandy ground without sinking down to their axles.
As far as I can recall, within days of our arrival it was decided they were more trouble than all their worth and we used our big Bedfords. Our problem was the damn stuff got everywhere, it filled your pockets, it filled your packs, it got into your underwear, it got into your weapons, we ate it, and we shit it. On one occasion it very nearly caused me to shoot one of the lads. We were doing standard squad assaults with the usual setup of the Bren gun team laying down cover fire as the final attack of riflemen went in.
It was live fire and over very soft sand dunes, which was exhausting everybody. For some mind blowing reason our officer decided to try another ploy with us going in along with the main squad. Off we went again working overlap over overlap till we got to the last rush and off we went in an extended line blazing away merrily and screaming at the top of our voices. Now the Bren is a heavy weapon to go charging off over sand with and I was no 'Rambo' as slowly I lagged further and further behind but still giving off short bursts as I went.
Then there was a grinding sound as I went to let off another burst, sand had got into the works and stopped the mechanism pushing another round into the breach. I carried on a few steps shaking the gun and working the trigger. I next became aware that someone was directly in front of me; I had either strayed off my line or he had, so I shouted to get out of my way and at the same time raised the weapon. It suddenly went off with a long prolonged burst which scared the life out of the man in front and almost made me sick at the thought of what had just been avoided, as I had wrongly still been holding back the trigger and would be judged at fault if there were any questions asked. As it was all I got was a growl from the sergeant not to waste ammunition and "... had I forgot we only fire short bursts on assaults." The last and final part of our spell of training was designed to let us get a feel of what it was like to come under attack from enemy aircraft. Some of us were going to ask what the difference was likely to be as a fair amount of us had already experienced what it was like to be strafed by our own planes, but we thought, better not.
The air force did this on a regular basis as a normal part of pilot training and as we were next door to their ranges why not have a go with us underneath. Another unusual item was to be added on our visit. Some munitions store had a vast stock of explosives that were getting close to the end of their safe handling life and it was decided to pile up this lot in one huge heap and let it off to simulate an Atom Bomb explosion. The day of the exercise duly arrived and we spread out in a long line simulating an attack and proceeded to dig our little slit trenches. The ground was soft and we finished our task in double quick time and sat back for a smoke and a natter. All of a sudden without any warning of them approaching the first flight of jets thundered over our heads at what felt like two feet with all guns blazing. The ground seemed to heave up at us as the wash from their engines sucked the dry sand up into the air, and the noise battering our eardrums was beyond belief. Every one of us dove for cover even though we were expecting it and it was some experience.
As for the second part of the exercise it turned out to be a right damp squib, as we were positioned so far away we heard nothing and the only evidence was a long plume of grey smoke rising up on the horizon. It was not all work on our visit to Tripoli, we had a chance to visit the Roman ruins at Leptis Magna and the army Cine Unit visited with a few films but on the whole it was a rather boring time.
And so my spell in the forces drew to an end. After Tripoli we went back to Cyprus but this time it was very pleasant. We were back in Platres but this time we were based in better hotels and the forces had set up an area to train newly arrived troops in anti terrorist tactics and we were the teachers. We sunbathed and drank beer while our officers and NCOs lectured the new arrivals and when they were taken out on to the field to practice their skills we dressed up as the enemy and generally caused as much mayhem as we could.
One last memory that never leaves me (probably as I am a Scot and an Aberdonian at that) is the time I threw about a quarter of my wages into the Mediterranean. We were on the carrier Theseus and had just been paid and were all coming up from the ship's canteen with cans of beer, etc and were all settling down for our treats. I had my hands full with a can of lager and a packet of Kit Kat along with my change which included a ten shilling note and loose change. Somehow I got the paper off the chocolate mixed up with the note and threw the wrong one over the side.
Given that our wage was just some two to three pounds I feel sure you can understand my torment.