This is going to be difficult – and you’ll understand why.
From any Army unit that had seen some action, had a well-deserved opinion of itself and was comfortable with its commanding officer, there usually emerged a Character. Those units unable didn’t produce such a man obviously didn’t deserve one.
Our Character was Tony Gizzi, and like it or not he was a fellow member of my section when we were in England. Even more disturbingly, he shared our six-man ridge-tent when we were in the Western Desert.
As if to endorse the provenance of his Welsh-Italian stock he assured us that his parents ran the donkey-rides on the Llandudno beaches. With gleaming white teeth, luxuriant black hair, dark Italianate eyes and a ready grin, he always appeared to be cheerful – but he was the most foul- mouthed man I have ever met.
His casual use of profanity was constant, but coming from Tony, with his soft Welsh vowels, his stream of obscenities was delivered with an almost lyrical cadence. When really displeased with someone, Tony’s swearing had the contradictory warmth of comradeship, his curses somehow evoking the ecclesiastic solace of a benediction. Hard to describe. Yet in short, it was a joy to know him, for elusively he had easily become our own company’s personal treasure. But nobody, I’m certain, really understood him.
He could be as unpredictable as weeping gelignite and almost as dangerous, for it would have been be a foolish man who took his insults seriously. No taller than my five-foot seven, he was however a solid ball of high-voltage muscle.
He led a charmed life, always living on the brittle edge of disciplinary prudence and showing a stunning disregard for authority. King’s Regulations and the Manual of Military Law didn’t concern him. Always casually, the last man on parade with only seconds to spare, he somehow deflected the wrath of NCOs with bogus charm and apparent humility; the half-smile on his face a fraction this side of dumb insolence. But never, to my knowledge was he actually late or ever put on a ‘charge’, but attracted many extra duties in lieu, which he performed cheerfully and with a minimum of effort. He never invited admiration for his waywardness, but we all, I think, envied his survival technique.
"Move it, Gizzi!" the sergeants would roar. "You’ll be late for your own bloody funeral." It made no difference.
For Army life, morality was a commodity best left at home, but Tony’s promiscuity was legendary, at least while we were in England. He didn’t boast but took it as perfectly natural that when he wanted a woman, he got one, helped no doubt by his animal good-looks, charm and brutal directness.
"But don’t you ever take a girl out for a drink" we asked, "or soften her up first with a decent meal somewhere?"
"Naah! Not bloody likely. Just a waste of time and money."
"Well, how do you manage it then?" we queried, intrigued.
"Simple. If I fancy a bird, I just ask her straight out if she’d like a fuck."
"But surely, you must get your face slapped a lot?"
"Yeah, but only a bit. My success rate’s pretty high, so it’s well worth it."
And then we moved to North Africa. What Tony did when on leave in Cairo was nobody’s business. But when friends returned from leave Tony would buttonhole them and eagerly demand, "Did you get any? Did you get any?" and relish every explicit detail.
To accompany him on leave could be both hilarious and hazardous. The frisson of the unexpected was always present, just around the corner.
One day on leave in Cairo and in funds, four of us, including Tony, decided to test the Establishment attitude to ORs (Other Ranks) by having tea at Groppi’s; the elite of Cairo’s restaurants, patronised largely by senior services officers.
Seeing no Other Ranks exclusion notices, we took a table by a bay window. White linen tablecloths, gleaming cutlery and a large vase of flowers stood on every table. Naturally, the service for those like us, wearing battle-dress, was slow. We waited, knowing we would have to be patient, but for how long?
It soon became evident that Tony was building up a head of steam; smoking too fast for any possible enjoyment. Eventually, with studied nonchalance, he broke off the head of a flower and ate it. He then reached for another, meanwhile puffing furiously at cigarettes, in defiance of etiquette.
Still no waitress.
More blooms were consumed, accompanied by worried looks from adjacent tables. With his patience stretched to dangerous length, Tony stood up and rasped loud enough for his voice to carry, "Let’s go somewhere else, lads, and get some decent food." And so we left.
Unlikely as it may seem, Cairo enjoyed a popular indoor ice-skating rink. I was not present on the actual occasion, but I was later told by a fellow sergeant, also there at the time, that he saw Tony skating. He was circling the ice rink with many others in the traditional anti-clockwise direction; hands clasped behind his back in the aloof upright stance of the experienced performer, but without wearing skates! Yet nobody appeared to notice.
* * *
Only once did I see Tony’s easy-going composure disturbed. At an Egyptian base camp for R&R (Rest and Recreation), a boxing match had been organised. A platform had been built on which the ring was erected. Teams were picked more or less according to weight. This was to be a friendly affair. A match against another regiment would have been a different matter. Honour was then at stake. Boxing became fighting. Among ourselves, we only wanted to see a display by ambitious contenders merely capable of scoring points. No blood.
Three rounds, each of three minutes with a minute’s rest between rounds. Sergeant-Major ‘Jasper’ Boyte acted as referee.
The afternoon passed pleasantly. The NAAFI had plenty of beer and we’d recently been paid. As ever, the weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky.
We had reached the end of the last bout, Corporal Potter easily winning his heavyweight bout. He was a big man, of modest attainments and not popular. Standing in the ring after the referee’s decision he looked around at the many spectators. Seeing Gizzi, he cried out, "Tony, how about having a friendly?"
Tony shook his head and remained seated. "C’mon, Tony, just a couple of rounds." Tony didn’t move. But we, his friends and many of the audience, urged him on. He protested, no. And yet again he refused ... but in vain.
Eventually, overcome by public demand he climbed slowly to his feet and with shoulders shrugging his resignation, entered the ring and was gloved.
The first round was three minutes of gentle sparring. Potter, the taller and with the longer reach easily out-pointed Tony. The second round was a little more lively with the corporal showing us some fancy footwork to make Tony look wooden, and hitting harder than was necessary. I, for one was worried.
A few seconds before the end of the round, Potter delivered a left hook from nowhere which put Tony on the canvas, a bit dazed but saved by the bell.
The spectators were silent. This was no longer a friendly. Tony sat in his corner. He refused a drink from his seconds or a cooling wipe-over with a wet sponge. The atmosphere was now electric.
At the bell both boxers advanced, touched gloves, a token handshake, and stepped back. Potter adopted the fighter’s stance: left arm forward, right glove guarding his head, and began circling to his left. Tony observed no such precautions. He merely leapt forward and delivered one solid blow to the jaw; a clean knock-out from which it took the corporal three or four minutes to recover, lying on the canvas, while for Tony the ecstatic audience roared its approval. A day I shall always remember.
Letting off steam occasionally was of course essential therapy, aided by NAAFI beer and always accompanied by coarse army songs. Traditionally, the vocal finale among Royal Engineers was the singing of the Corps’ song, ‘Hurrah, for the CRE!’(Commander, Royal Engineers): this was a robust piece pre-dating the Boer War and extolling the many RE field activities. The cruder version naturally, was always the more popular, although unsuitable for sensitive ears. Both versions ended with a loud roar of defiance or exuberance, depending upon the occasion.
When on leave in Cairo this quaint idiosyncrasy was still observed in bar or dance hall when curfew time approached; whenever, that is, the group of sappers felt numerically confident enough to sing it. Understandably, it was not appreciated by men of other regiments with no such traditional theme songs of their own, and for whom our words were pure gibberish.
The dance hall mentioned above was naturally a euphemism. Yes, it had a floor for dancing. Yes, the Egyptian band on the stage played its own interpretations of the current popular dance tunes. One or two hostesses attended the early evening sessions but shortly disappeared: whether on business elsewhere or because of khaki misanthropy, it was anyone’s guess. What drew us was the beer: far better than the NAAFI issue and relatively cheap. It was a popular venue and usually crowded with Army personnel.
Should any vocal disagreements between members of different regiments tend to become physical, a steel latticework screen descended from the proscenium arch to protect the band from flying chairs and bottles. Military Red Caps, always sensitive to displays of unrestrained exuberance were usually close at hand, and quickly restored order before much damage could be achieved.
One evening at the dance hall, a number of us from the same section, including Tony, decided to sing our ritual song at the end of our drinking session. It was not appreciated by members of the Green Howards; an admirable regiment in many respects, but musically dyslexic, and a mild fracas ensued, quickly defused by the Red Caps.
On the last night of our leave we were there again, quiet, sober and well behaved. We were seated on a low platform on which stood a small table. It had been an enjoyable evening. The band was packing up its instruments. It was getting late. Back in barracks by midnight - perhaps.
As we finished our beer, Tony stood up, raised his arms above his head in a theatrical gesture and shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen." A minor solecism. There were no ladies present, but he had everyone’s attention.
A natural showman, he then rolled up the sleeves of his bush-jacket to above his elbows and from his jacket pocket produced a grey object, the size of a builder’s brick but only half as thick, with a round hole in its centre. Holding it aloft in both hands he described a half-circle, displaying it to everyone as though he were a conjurer.
Perhaps he would make it disappear; change it into a bunch or flowers maybe, or a white rabbit . . ? Cairo was full of clever ‘gulli-gulli’ magicians who could perform such tricks. His audience stood still and silent.
Tony placed the item carefully on the table in front of him and then produced another item, also grey in colour, the size and shape of a cotton reel. This too had a small hole in its centre. The audience was now intrigued. With another thespian flourish he displayed it to everyone before carefully inserting it into the hole in the half-brick. A perfect fit. "Gun-cotton," murmured some know-all in the crowd.
Next came a small metal cylinder from a top pocket; the size of a pencil but only four inches long. Then from his waist, Tony pulled a length of black-coated cable. One end he cautiously inserted into the metal tube and crimped it tight with his teeth. (A dangerous method this, forbidden for us, but vastly time- saving when in action). There was a murmur and a shuffling of feet. A careful movement started towards the doors. Some were beginning to catch-on. Detonators were tricky things: not to be messed with.
Slowly and carefully Tony inserted the metal tube into the hole in the apparent cotton reel. Using his burning cigarette he lighted the other end of the two yards or so of slow-burning fuse, which fizzled alarmingly, emitting smoke and small sparks.
By now there was a desperate stampede for the exit, one voice complaining, "Those fucking Engineers; they’re all bloody mad!"
His assembly now completed, Tony proclaimed in a compelling voice, "We will now sing, ‘Hurrah, for the C.R.E." and to corroborate the possible danger of the situation, we all threw ourselves flat on the floor. And so, in the empty dance hall, by now sitting half-upright we sang, ending with the customary Engineers’ yell of defiance, considerably louder than usual.
Yes, the gun-cotton brick, primer and fuse were real. The vital detonator was a dummy, used only for training.
As I’ve related elsewhere, while I was in Tobruk, my section suffered devastating casualties while clearing German acoustic mines from the Suez Canal. A few days after the burial service for some twenty-eight of my friends, the intact body of Tony Gizzi was found among the reeds on the Far side of the Canal where the force of the explosion had thrown him.
As had been predicted, he was late for his own funeral.