Farce - part 1

Military farce can take numerous forms. For example, there's farcical farce and serious farce. The former is the kind where you can appreciate the humour as it happens, and laugh, or try not to, depending upon those involved. Serious farce is seldom farcical at the time. It is only later, if you're still around, that the hilarity of the events will reach you; sometimes it may even be many years later.

Farcical farce, fortunately, seldom has long-lasting effects and can soon be forgotten. Serious farce is different, as I shall explain.

At the time of which I write, we were encamped in Egypt's Western Desert, only a few miles from the border of Libya, at the time an Italian colony, complete of course with an Italian army.

We were not a happy unit. Our previous commanding officer we had respected and even liked. But he had recently been promoted to a well-deserved desk-job at the War Office in London. We were sorry to see him go. We would have done anything (almost) for him, for he was fair and lenient, had a healthy disregard for King's Regulations and with the connivance of our company sergeant major took risks to keep us well fed and to allow us leave in Cairo more often perhaps than regulations allowed.

Naturally we missed him, for his replacement at best could only be described as a twenty-two carat shit - which takes something of an effort in an engineering Field Company, whose moral strength is the relatively easy relationship between officers and other ranks, because we all understood the importance of mutual dependency.

Large, overweight and a strict disciplinarian, this replacement ran the Field Company by the letter of the Manual of Military Law, rather than by the spirit, to which we had become accustomed. Those few men brought before him on a 'charge', (and his very attitude encouraged an outbreak of myopia among us NCOs), could expect rough treatment. His pet hate was the accusation of being improperly dressed, usually brought by scavenging Military Police upon those of us unlucky to be caught beyond our own company lines. Anyone so charged could expect the worst that the Manual of Military Law allowed.

His name appropriately, was Major Farewell. On the 3rd September 1939, those of us in camp were summoned to parade at the double outside the Major's tent. Fortunately our NAAFI suppliers were blessed with the prescience of the bush telegraph, so we were all perfectly well aware why we were being paraded. However, we formed a semi-circle outside the entrance to his tent and waited.

"The men are paraded outside, sir," announced our sergeant major.

There was a short silence until the gallant major emerged to tell us what we already knew: that war had been declared against Germany.

There was a quiver among us like wind rippling through a field of ripe corn. But for our collective discipline, we should all have been falling about with mass hernias as we struggled to contain our hysteria, for this odious man had hurriedly donned his solar topee back-to-front. The bronze cap badge worn at the front was now missing. It was at the back. The khaki pugaree, a narrow length of muslin worn around the helmet bore the two- inch square swatch of the Corps' colours, red and navy blue. This should have been seen on the right side. It was now on the left. Improperly dressed!

What's so hilarious about that, you ask? Perhaps little for you, on a scale of one to ten, but you would have to have been there with us to share our loathing for the man, fully to appreciate our emotions.

*   *   *

By now full-scale war was being waged in the Western Desert and naturally we were part of it. Thankfully we didn't have to dig trenches, for this was very much a mobile war compared with the previous affair.

In the beginning the Italians were our principal antagonists, shortly to be followed by the Germans. The early stages were mostly undertaken with reconnaissance cars from both sides, taking binocular sightings of each other, usually at safe distances.

Petrol then was as valuable as ammunition, if not more so. With petrol one could at least speedily retreat.

As was customary in those early days, nobody in the lower echelons was told what was happening, what was expected of them, or why. Then one day when things were hotting up under General Wavell, some eighteen or twenty of us actually happy handling explosives were detached from the unit.

Together with a cook and other back-up staff, we were taken to a remote area well to the rear where we would be undisturbed by inquisitive eyes.

There we were introduced to a new explosive. New, that is, to us. Known as PE (plastic explosive), it was malleable, looked and handled like plasticine and was far less sensitive to shock and friction than the other explosives we had used. Then at night, working in pairs, we had to practice locating previously sited dummy pipelines, finding our way with prismatic compasses and remembering the approximate number of paces to the mile.

Once the sites were located and having evaded sentries and barbed wire, we had then to place dummy charges on the pipework with dummy detonators and primed with delayed-action fuses. In the morning our achievements or lack of them were assessed.

Yes, of course you've guessed, just as we had; we were after enemy petrol installations. But where? We were not told. (We'd hardly be trained to blow up our own, but by then, one could never be certain.)

Throughout the whole farce that was to follow, nobody told us officially, where, when or what was expected of us, nor, officially the eventual outcome.

Later in North Africa, when Monty took control of the 8th Army, he revolutionized military thinking. Before starting any important operation he ordered his commanders to make certain that all ranks, down to the lowliest cooks, were made perfectly aware of his objectives and how he was depending upon each unit to help achieve them. And despite initial objections from some of the high ranking whisky-soaked old-stagers, whom he promptly sacked, that's the way Monty got results. But we were still living in the Dark Ages.

Then, one night some eighteen of us, with trusted-with-PE competence, were driven to the Egyptian port of Alexandria and moved into barracks at the edge of the city. These were old dilapidated sheds, apparently unoccupied for years except by rats, scorpions and large spiders. For the first few days we were confined to barracks. But dear old CSM 'Jasper' Boyte, who knew his way around King's Regs far better than Major Farewell, pointed out that confining men to barracks was a punishment, which in our case was undeserved.

In an hilarious confusion of unprecedented volte-face, our CO told us that we were now to be allowed into Alexandria in the afternoons, but must return to barracks by eight o'clock. Under No Circumstances were we to talk to men of other units, or to any civilians. Talk about what, we asked each other, baffled?

This was fast becoming cloak-and-dagger nonsense.

Being in Alex, we reckoned, could only mean we were waiting to board a ship. And in this we were to be proved correct. But why? We were not told.

I can still remember one afternoon when I was partly responsible for an incident I had previously seen only in a film, but was convinced could never happen in real life.

I was in a bar chatting happily with a small group of New Zealander soldiers.One private and I, both of us having sunk a jar or two were noisily swearing eternal friendship, the normal conclusion after drinking sessions between members of the allied forces.

Naturally we were in loud and total agreement concerning a recent example of military incompetence in which we had both been involved, when he asked, "Wha'll ya have, Corp?"

I pushed my glass forward along the bar counter. "Another beer'll do me fine thanks, Digger," which he bought.

In due course it was my round.

"What'a you drinking?" I said. "Scotch? Okay." So feeling companionable I ordered him a double. He nodded his head and murmured a thank you, the brim of his Boy Scout hat tipped forward over his eyes.

He downed his drink in one fluid movement, put the glass back extra-carefully on the counter and then, standing upright to attention and as stiff as a board, fell forward to the floor, BANG!

His nearby companions looked at me with sorrow. "Yer shouldn't really 'a done that, Mate,' said one, shaking his head sadly, 'but then of course, yer weren't ter know yer was drinking with Curly, were yer ...?"

Back at barracks two newcomers joined us. One, we got only to know at a respectful distance. He was Geoffrey Household, the best-selling author of Rogue Male. Was he joining us to obtain material for another thriller, or was he, as other well-known authors proved to be, during the war, a part-time member of the secret service? We never did discover.

The other man, who appeared to be running the show; and honestly, you must believe this for I would never have dared to invent so implausible a figure, was short and squat, wore a black suit, even in Egypt's heat, dark glasses, a black wide-brimmed hat and a full black Assyrian spade-beard. He walked in a furtive crouch rather like Groucho Marx, as if he thought it made him less conspicuous. We never did discover his nationality.

At the time, the city of Alexandria boasted a large, air-conditioned cinema, reputedly the largest in Africa. One afternoon I was sitting comfortably in the stalls watching the film of Lousia M. Allcott's Little Women. Not a care in the world.

Suddenly the film and sound track stopped. The screen went blank. The house lights were switched on and the manager in dinner jacket and black tie walked to the centre of the stage. He held a microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Please excuse the interruption, but I have an important announcement to make. Will any member of the Fifty-Fourth Field Company, Royal Engineers, who is in the audience, please return immediately to their barracks. Thank you."

For a few moments there was what is called a pregnant silence. Heads swivelled, including my own looking for mutual support. None.

Eventually I heaved myself to my feet, probably scarlet with embarrassment and with, "Excuse me please, thank you, excuse me please, thank you," moved erratically towards the broad central isle and walked down the mile or so of red carpet to a door marked EXIT. And then, bugger me! The audience began to applaud. All of them; enthusiastically.

I wasn't going up to collect an Oscar. I was only returning to barracks.

Can you imagine a crazier situation? There was I, a solitary, murderous, deep under-cover saboteur in khaki uniform, walking calmly down the vast auditorium to the approbation of thousands - still in my early twenties.

I had no idea what the Fifty-Fourth was up to, but it would appear that much of Alexandria knew. Great, for secrecy!

And that was just one of the incidents of a military cock-up that nearly resulted in a serious international incident.

Meanwhile, Alexandria's Military Police had been busy combing the city's bars and brothels for the rest of us. I don't think the museums or art galleries were given any serious attention.

Yes, our ship had come in. And as we had expected, we boarded her at three o'clock in the morning, quietly and with no talking. Just as silently, and with none of the customary hooting of departing vessels, we slipped into the Mediterranean with still no word of our destination.

The s.s. Sobieski was no cruise liner. Her crew comprised Poles, Lascars, two naval gunners and an English Captain and First Mate.

She had obviously been dragged, protesting, from a dock-yard scrap heap, for she had a rough dignity and I'm certain would have preferred to have been re-cycled for the manufacture of guns, armoured cars or tanks.

Practically all her metalwork was red with rust, but her engines worked after a fashion, and we wallowed along making slow progress.

There were no bunks so we were issued with hammocks. Some even managed to sleep in them. I found the deck far more comfortable, and safer.

As with all the Allied merchant ships, she was armed. A metal deck had been built over the stern and on this was mounted a 4-inch gun, probably borrowed for the occasion from a museum. A naval gunnery genius had adjusted the mountings so that a powerful determined man could elevate the barrel to almost forty-five degrees, thus giving it the menacing appearance of an anti-aircraft piece.

This may have looked effective, but in practice it meant that the breech was so near the deck that loading the weapon with projectile and cordite propellant was to be both difficult and time consuming. Accurate aiming at enemy aircraft would have required the services of a naval dwarf (unlikely), or someone lying on their back.

I was soon to discover that we were not the only freight. Exploring those areas of the vessel forbidden us to enter, I met the Pole in charge of the engine room. He spoke just enough English to keep a conversation alive and was delighted to receive my daily ration of 'V' cigarettes. These were an Army expedient, issued free to all members of the 8th Army, but said to contain more dried camel dung than tobacco. What the 'V' stood for was anyone's guess. Someone had suggested Victory, but victory for what - galloping lung-cancer?

So, despite the noise and the combined smell of engine oil and bilge water the Pole and I became great friends, the way shipboard friendships quickly develop. I was even invited to eat with him down in the guts of the vessel and enjoyed Polish dishes far more generous and palatable than the Army rations being served up on deck to my desperado colleagues.

It was down in the engine room that I was introduced to the glory of vodka. "This safe for you upstair," laughed my Polish friend, re-filling my glass. "Vodka, no smell. No like the whisky." What a blessing, naturally, as for we military passengers the Sobieski had been declared a dry ship.

Ancient though they were, the Pole was proud of his engines and conducted me along fragile vibrating catwalks where, oil can in one hand, he laid gentle fingers on massive thundering pistons and other dangerous moving parts, like a doctor delicately feeling a pulse.

"This only way I have," he grinned, "to see they are proper, not too hot. The, what you say gauges, broken for long time. Ship too old for new ones. Is vodka keeps me healthy for this job. You want me show you something?"

"Of course."

We climbed a greasy, vertical steel ladder and reached a platform the size of a small bathmat. I tried to remember a short prayer that might have been adequate for the occasion, but my errant memory was overcome by the noise.

"You hold on strong," he shouted, grinning manically. "Don't want you fall in engines. Take me long time to clean." I nodded politely, clinging with both hands to an adjacent stanchion.

My Polish friend then opened a small bulkhead, reached inside and switched on some lights. 'You look,' he suggested. Gripping my companionable railings even more firmly I poked my head inside. There, lashed securely in a row at the bottom of the hold were a dozen or so 12-inch naval guns.

How did I know they were naval? I had been among artillery units often enough to know from their mountings that they were certainly not Army ordnance and were far too heavy to have been of much practical use by the Royal Air Force.

"You soldiers going blow up Istanbul?" he laughed.

Istanbul. Turkey. So now I knew our destination. But why? The guns must have been worth many thousands of pounds and surely far more important a cargo than the musical comedy cast of Field Company personnel up on deck.

More hilarity was soon to follow, and I must assure you that all of this, though highly improbable, is perfectly true.

Read the rest of the story ...

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007