Farce - part 2

One morning after a couple or three days at sea the weather was warm and sunny. The Sobieski was chugging her strenuous way north and there was neither ship nor land in sight.

After breakfast we were paraded on deck. Stacked before us were a number of large cardboard boxes that had been brought up from the forward hold. Our two subalterns were opening them for here – wait for it – were our disguises!

All of us, officers included, were then issued with identical brown pork-pie hats, Viyella checked shirts, plain knitted woollen ties, greenish brown Harris Tweed jackets, grey flannel slacks and brown brogue shoes. (But they’d forgotten the shooting sticks.)

This mufti we were then instructed to exchange for our uniforms, and so by swapping around with each other’s issues we all, more or less, managed to secure clothing items to fit.

Our khaki uniforms we were told to pack in our kitbags. Surprisingly, we didn’t discuss this new development with the hope of any serious interpretations. The whole affair had appeared crazy from the start. We knew better than to ask questions. And anyway, whom could we have asked?

Major Farewell then ordered, "Should a ship be sighted or if we become within sight of land you must all immediately disappear below decks."

Sound thinking, this. One couldn’t be too careful, otherwise anyone with an inquisitive telescope would quickly have realised that here was a mystery ship with a mad scientist aboard, busily cloning a colony of identical English Country Gentlemen, for some warlike purpose too macabre to contemplate.

The Major continued, "In future and until further notice, no one will salute officers."

The sheer absurdity of this order only reinforced our certainty that the man was a prize idiot. Our basic training had made perfectly clear that should we encounter an officer while out of barracks wearing civvies, we should do no more than try to appear sober and touch the brim of our hats, at the same time giving a slight nod of reverence. It crossed my mind to photograph the scene but then thought it prudent to keep this boatload of nonsense unrecorded.

A day or two later we entered the Dardanelles and the s.s. Sobieski dropped anchor close to the peninsular of Gallipoli, on the European side of Turkey.

A launch set out from the shore and in two or three trips had landed the twenty or so of us on to a wooden-planked jetty. There we were met by three members of the 2nd Field Company whom we had previously got to know when we had shared their barracks for a short time in Cairo. At least we were among friends.

The following day a saloon car arrived and whisked Geoffrey Household and Groucho away. We never saw them again.

*   *   *

A rough coastal road ran past the jetty. Behind it the land was flat and green, and here we pitched our white ridge-tents in straight regimental lines. No camping holiday this, for we English Country Gentlemen.

The road, or rather what remained of it, continued south-west along the edge of the peninsular where the terrain suddenly changed from low lying green fields to a formidable cliff-face.

The road had once been little more than a perilous footpath, but in 1922 during the British Army’s occupation of Turkey, the Royal Engineers had blasted a road surface along the cliff face wide enough to accept military vehicles. Since then it had remained untouched except by time and rough seas.

Of the road’s seaward edge large irregular sections had fallen into the waves some twenty feet below; a hazard in the dark since no protective railings had been installed. This highway ended a mile or so from our camp at a small collection of rough single-storey buildings with thatched roofs. Their remote, dead-end seclusion was probably prolonged by the reluctance of any local health officer – if indeed there was one - to risk the hazards of the journey to ensure that the residents conformed to the local byelaws concerning public sanitation.

I well remember the gloomy tavern lit by a forty-watt bulb; a grocer’s shop where we could buy marvellous Turkish delight, smothered in icing sugar and hauled by the fistful from a huge wooden barrel, and then my first and most delicious mouthful of genuine yoghurt.

Apart from the three or four tottering stone-buildings, these pleasure palaces were to be our only social outlet for the few of us who still had any money.

Turkey was as new to us as it must still have been to many Turks. Kemal Ataturk had been elected President in 1932 and had immediately emancipated the country from its countless Ottoman influences, bringing it more in line with Western traditions. He had abolished the red fez headgear and the nightshirt-like djellaba for men, as well as the all-concealing veil for women. The harem was abolished and men were henceforth restricted to one wife – not four (or even more) as in some other Islamic countries. Of greater importance for trade, he had abolished the Arabic script and replaced it with the Roman typeface lettering and a phonetic alphabet for Turkish, making it the easiest language I have ever been tempted to learn. Even within a few weeks I was able to buy a drink unaided and if necessary argue the toss about the change.

But the Turks, while still revering the memory of their liberal President, were slow to accept all these innovations with philosophical calm: a national trait for which they were scarcely world leaders. The restriction of only one wife meant they now had an essential commodity to be cherished with care.

Major Farewell, having read somewhere of Wellington’s opinion of his troops during the Peninsular War, must have decided that we too were ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. Thus, he thought it would be prudent to stop paying us lest we obtain drink and set about ravishing the local maidens.

Let me explain more of our monastic situation and why any contact with local maidens, let alone with carnal intentions, was highly unlikely as well as being highly dangerous.

Across the strip of water separating us from Asian Turkey sat the small port of Canakkele, just under a mile away. This was the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, known in ancient Greece as the Hellespont, and where Leander swam at night to meet his lover, Hero. A disappointing occasion for both, I should imagine, when a flood tide was running. Lord Byron also tried the same trick in 1810, but remember, the women then wore the all-encompassing veil. Ah well!

Provisions, we obtained from shops in Canakkele. Those of us NCOs whom it was considered unlikely to run amuck or desert when in Asian Turkey were entrusted with the motor launch, sufficient cash and a shopping list. We had already noticed that the few male Turks whom we had so far seen, all wore gaiters or a form of leggings from the top of which protruded the handle of a stiletto. Consequently, we were warned that Turkish women were seldom seen without a male escort, and that we should NEVER ever allow our eyes to rest on her for more than a fleeting second, as though we were merely scanning the street for a pub. A wolf-whistle, if understood, could easily prove fatal.

We wondered what they made of us, for when shopping we always appeared as English Country Gentlemen. At other times, of course we wore our shapeless army fatigues.

On returning to our European camp with provisions, we would regale our less fortunate friends with hilarious fictitious stories of amorous dalliance with the harbour master’s glamorous daughter who helped secure our launch on arrival.

A tall imposing figure with the physique of a Turkish wrestler and a luxuriant cavalry major’s moustache, she was never in need of a chaperon. Whether we were believed or not didn’t matter. Nobody tended to believe anything any more. Life had now passed well beyond logical reasoning.

The next piece of nonsense is shockingly true, and far beyond my powers of invention. The better to convince any casual observers that we were genuine civilian engineers, we obtained the materials and built a pile driver. This we erected on the waterfront and began the construction of a jetty. We worked wearing army boots and fatigue shorts; not strictly uniforms you understand.

From somewhere we obtained a hand-operated concrete mixer and started laying the underwater foundations for a jetty. This meant filling sandbags with newly mixed concrete, leaping into the water and laying them systematically on the seabed to set solid.

‘Hold it!’ I hear you wonder - another jetty? Didn’t you already have one?’

Of course we had, scarcely half a mile away. Unfortunately, the new one we were constructing would have proved impossible to use had it ever been completed. It was being built too close to a high cliff face and the road would only have been accessible for experienced climbers or mountain goats. But these were Major Farewell’s orders; so, unworried we carried on.

Then the next stage of lunacy arrived. Very occasionally an ox-cart would trundle slowly past our work site. To convince the somnolent native drivers of our innocence a large sign was erected on the cliff face. In English capital letters it read:


There was no phone number, so the chances of picking up further work say, in Istanbul or even Canakele were limited. And so, in this leisurely way we spent our days. There was no sense of urgency. No construction schedule, no architect’s plans; but the swimming was great.

We soon discovered that the ‘V’ cigarettes still being issued could be used as barter currency at the village shop and tavern. So for many, the cigarettes’ cash-value and their foul taste were strong inducements to give up smoking and trade them in for something more exhilarating. Like booze.

I was soon to find that my evenings in the tavern were to be far more enjoyable (and profitable), than those spent among my mates in camp, even though it was a long walk there, and always appeared far longer returning.

Still in funds, I decided to try a local beer, and once accustomed to the gloom of the tavern, I began to take notice of its customers, discover the feel of the place and see if I could possibly be accepted as a foreign regular.

The next time, I took a sketch pad and sitting in a corner tried unobtrusively to capture some of the strong Turkish faces close to me. My reticence soon proved unnecessary. One of my models noticed I was sketching him and demanded to see the result. I tore off the sheet and gave it to him. With a wild whoop of delight he showed it to his friends and then bought me a beer.

After that, every visit was an occasion. There was always a small group of locals eager to be drawn, so I was given a small milking stool in the middle of the room. There I would arrange my sitters to their best advantage under the meagre light bulb and always produce a complimentary portrait, never a cartoon.

For those with three chins I would perform plastic surgery and give them one, or possibly two. For those with fighting scars I chose their better profile and for the majority who probably shaved but once a month, I suggested choirboy complexions. I took years off them, and they loved it.

That was how I discovered the real Turkey; where I was never allowed to spend a shekel, and where my Turkish was improving so fast I was soon able to indulge in the local custom of trading harmless insults. Fortunately Canakkele, about the size of a large English village, boasted four or five shops, one of which could supply me with ample paper, suitable at least for my 3B pencils. The sticks of carbon crayon I easily made myself.

I was given drinks of dubious provenance and tasted arak for the first time; a ferocious colourless liquid that turns milky when water is added. Arak, I believe also happens to be the Arabic word for sweat.

From a spit turning continuously over a charcoal fire I was introduced to shish kebab, smoky and delicious. I have never tasted this dish anywhere else remotely as good.

Walking unsteadily back to camp along the cliff road could often be hazardous, especially on moonless nights. The continuous roar of the waves breaking over the rocks below kept me tight against the cliff face on my left.

Occasionally I might bump into a companion, unwise enough to have bartered his cigarettes for a bottle of Greek wine and to have sampled it too liberally on his way back. This meant sleeping it off by the side of the road and being late for roll call the following morning.

This life was much too good to last. And of course, it didn’t.

*   *   *

Early one morning we were aroused by ‘Jasper’ Boyte and told to parade at the double.

"What?" we asked in amazement, "in civvies?"

"Yes," he shouted, "and be bloody smart about it."

Major Farewell was in a tizzy, pacing furiously up and down a small patch of grass as though it were the quarterdeck of HMS Victory. When we had fallen-in he told us to pack our personal kit, leave everything else and make for the jetty as fast as possible, which we did. In panic-station haste we were ferried back to the s.s. Sobieski. She was somewhat lighter in the water now, since the naval guns had been removed, probably at night and unnoticed by us.

We changed back into our uniforms while our gent’s clothing was quickly stuffed back into the original cardboard boxes. The anchor was weighed and we set sail down towards the Aegean Sea.

Lying on the deck sunbathing, I was feeling resentful that I hadn’t had the opportunity to say goodbye to my tavern-drinking friends – when the bombs fell. A whole stick of some five or six, close along the side of the vessel. With the wind in the rigging and the usual shipboard noises we hadn’t even heard the aircraft approaching.

Of course, no one had advised us that this was likely to happen, so it was something of a shock. The only cause for hilarity was Sapper Kelly’s broken leg; understandably, he had fallen while climbing up from the forward hold when the bombs fell close alongside.

It was Sergeant Major ‘Jasper’ Boyte, of course who immediately took charge of things. He ordered our two Bren guns to be mounted on the top deck and quickly made a duty roster of the unit’s best shots whom would man them during daylight hours.

Meanwhile, the two Navy lads uncovered their gun at the stern while volunteers like Tiny Black, who could hold half-a-dozen or more shells at a time in his huge arms, stood by. Whizzer Truscott, almost as big, held the canvas packs of cordite. Major Farewell was nowhere to be seen.

Only after we had established some kind of order did we become aware of gunfire in the distance and looked about us. To our surprise we found we were part of a small convoy. There were two or three merchant ships about our size, and what appeared to be a tug.

Off to port a destroyer was busily firing at receding aircraft. Astern and to starboard a couple of corvettes were keeping up a rattle with lighter calibre weapons.

So, after a fashion we were back in business. Being a devout coward, I immediately assessed the safest part of the ship where to hide, when we were next attacked. Were I to be near the centre and bombs fell fore or aft of me, surely I was going to be in serious trouble. The bows or the stern appeared to be the safest places. One or the other must surely halve the risk of personal damage. Moreover the stern had the steel decking above upon which sat the so-called anti-aircraft gun. It might be a dreadfully noisy place, but at least it offered some protection should the Italians decide to machine-gun us. Besides, I might get some decent pictures. I still had plenty of film. So when not taking my spell on a Bren gun, the stern is where I hid.

The demoralizing thing about being bombed is the frustrating inability of being able to do anything useful. You just stand and hope. Those of us on the Bren gun roster vied with each other for the active opportunities to man them. With a camera however, I could at least record what was happening.

It was a tiny pocket-sized German Vestex, whose magnificent Zeiss lens must largely have compensated for the tremor in my hands when low-flying aircraft approached from the stern; which they continued to do. What speed and aperture? A quick guess: 125th of a second at f8. Wind on. No time to focus, just leave it at infinity ... Fuck it. Here it comes. Frame it. Click. Wind on. Bomb doors opening. Frame ‘em. Click. Wind on fast. Bombs falling. Frame ‘em, click. Got ’em. Wind on. Bombs exploding in the sea slightly astern. Click. Wind on, and wait. Above me the comforting rattle of the Bren guns, the Navy hammering away in the distance, while immediately overhead the graceless thump of our own ordnance shuddered the supporting superstructure.

Then it was over ... for a time. Hoping I didn’t appear too visibly shaken I opened a Penguin paperback, sat down on a nearby crate and tried to read. The crate was painted red and held the cordite propellant for the gun above. But there was nowhere else to sit.

We were thankful that our attackers were Italians. Had they been Germans, it would have been a different story. The Navy’s rapid-firing guns probably kept the aircraft high enough to hamper precision bombing.

The s.s. Sobieski appeared to be a prime target, and although we receive no direct hits, damage caused by near misses probably ended her days as an ocean-going vessel, for the sides of the empty holds bulged inwards alarmingly allowing rivers of sea water to enter through buckled rivets.

We were never able fully to relax, but depended upon the Navy’s superior warning facilities, probably radar and powerful binoculars. The wheep wheep wheep of their claxons were clearly heard in time for us to stand to.

When not under attack ourselves, I was able to see how other ships were faring. They all had armaments of a sort, probably much like our own, and I was able to take photographs of bombs falling about them, including one direct hit. She lagged behind with a corvette in close support, but was soon out of sight, and for us, out of mind. And so for two or three days this is how we continued to chug south. We shook them off for a day or two dodging among the Greek Dodecanese Islands and doing a detour around Crete.

They picked us up again for a day or two as we limped across the Med for home, by then having added a few more merchantmen to our convoy as well as another destroyer. There was no further damage to any vessel that I could see, for we were widely dispersed and now had the blessing of RAF air cover.

So far as I knew we only accounted for one Axis plane. Anyone could have claimed the credit for we saw no direct hits. It just drifted away astern and crashed into the sea with a small explosion, too far away to be heard.

To my embarrassment I had achieved a reputation for coolness under fire. Spurious, I can assure you. If they had only known the truth ...

Alexandria was a beautiful sight. We docked, and heavily laden with our kit and a few mementoes, disembarked and formed up on the quayside.

As we were marching away, I saw the stern of s.s. Sobieski - and nearly collapsed. Gone in a flash was my cherished belief that a bomb falling in the sea was virtually harmless, for the water would absorb its explosive force. On the contrary, a bomb falling in the sea would explode immediately its sensitive tip touched the surface; our ship’s stern was riddled with gaping holes made by the shrapnel. And I had been leaning over the edge, the better to get good pictures. What consummate idiocy!

More humiliating was the realization that I was supposed to be proficient when handling explosives. But at least, with some compensating hindsight, I had never before been involved with maritime bombing.

It was not until we had rejoined our field company in the Western Desert and were some eight men short, that the purpose and conclusion of our trip to Turkey were gradually revealed. And this was not in a straightforward statement of facts, but by a series of leaks probably deliberately spread by our sergeant major, who thought we deserved the right to know.

Our objective had been to destroy as much of Romania’s Ploesti oil refinery as we might be able to reach, which at the time was supplying the Axis forces with much of their desperately needed petrol.

In pairs we were expected to cross the Turkish border and make our way to our destination on foot, or as best we could. In addition to our necessary explosives and a map, each pair would carry a satisfactory load of Marie Theresa gold thalers; at the time, still legal tender in the Balkans (and, incidentally the origin for the name of the American dollar.)

This cash, presumably, would allow us to buy our way out of any predicament that our lack of the language and our disguises as English Country Gentlemen might have landed us.

But Higher Command, with its unfortunately large quota of idiots who had devised this crazy venture, were obviously topographically dyslectic, or just useless at geography. They hadn’t realised that Romania is not contiguous with Turkey. There is another country in between: Bulgaria. Or perhaps our planners were unaware that Bulgaria was part of the Axis Empire. Maybe they thought Bulgarians would be more than happy to welcome respectable British tourists. So there, presumably is where we lost our colleagues, for as I’ve said, we were some eight men short.

From the start we were obviously expendable, and surely no one was likely officially to report the fiasco and so risk his own reputation if only by association. The least said, etc ...

With little difficulty the Italians had discovered our presence in Turkey and our sweeteners to the Turks of surplus naval guns for their own coastal defences. Turkey was told to expel us within twenty-four hours or lose her neutrality and be occupied by Axis forces. Hence our rapid departure, and why, three miles beyond their territorial waters, the Italian Air Force was waiting for us.

However, we were given one crumb of comfort, which we immediately enlarged into a triumphal feast of riotous rejoicing, which lasted for as long as any of us as cared to remember it. As indeed, I still do!

On the morning of our departure from the Dardanelles, Major Farewell was having coffee with the ship’s captain in his cabin, together with his first mate and our two subalterns. When the bombs fell, Major Farewell, without a moment’s hesitation, dived beneath the flimsy coffee table.

Naturally, we never saw him again.

Our next CO had the quiet, unassuming name of Smith.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007