After the episode in Jerusalem it may surprise you to learn that I was glad to he back with my mates in a field company. I'd enjoyed an exhilarating convalescence which I'd known couldn't have lasted for long, so naturally I'd made the most of it.
For the 8th Army, war had become more serious. We'd had yet another new commander-in-chief who'd been ordered by Churchill to shake things up. There was already a perceptible sense of fiercer determination, which for too long, had been lacking.
Terms of engagement too had become more brutal, and there was even a new buzzword in use; deception, discretely hidden under the title of camouflage.
A story was still going the rounds that appeared to support this. A British captain with a small platoon had recently captured an entire company of Italian infantry during a night patrol and had marched them back to captivity without a shot being fired. His greatest assets were a muscular imagination and a subaltern who spoke fluent Italian!
One senior commander on hearing of this exploit unwisely complained that this just wasn't cricket.
He was immediately relieved of his command and sent back to the UK
Rumour, always greedily embroidering such incidents, asserted - to the delight of us all, that he had been posted to a detachment of the Catering Corps in the Outer Hebrides to lecture them on aircraft recognition.
In due course the skill at deception or camouflage was decisively to alter my military career and give me travel, excitement and a freedom of action previously undreamed of, had I stayed with a field company.
Any unit such as ours, had to he self-supporting. Consequently all NCOs had to take turns in its management. Thus for a month or so someone was in charge of armaments. A cushy number this one, as it meant taking a quota of firearms to the Cairo armourers for checking and zeroing. Another chore was messing: collecting the rations and ensuring they were properly cooked and served. The weeks I spent in charge of company pay are best forgotten; but at least I had an assistant who was numerate. I was doing my stint in the company office helping the chief clerk when he said, "Hey, Bob. Listen to this. Here's a directive just in from 8th Army HQ. It says all company commanders are to forward the name of any NCO who is reasonably literate, imaginative, can draw or design and knows how to use a camera, though this last is not essential. Such a man, if suitable will be sent on a camouflage course. By God, Bob! It's just up your street, isn't it? Why not ask Jasper to put your name forward?" This sounded an exciting idea - so I did.
Have you ever thought how dull life would he without coincidences?
About this time someone at Army HQ with a bit more up top than most had suggested that it might be useful to learn something about the desert above the literal and whether or not it was negotiable for heavy vehicles.
It was known vaguely as the Quattara Depression, just south of El Alamein; but apparently nobody had been there because it was unmapped, uninhabited and probably treacherous.
Clever thinking this, for few knew, until we proved it, that much of the area couldn't even take the weight of a fifteen hundredweight truck. So it was among the depression that General Montgomery sited an entire dummy armoured division before his decisive battle, and where much of Rommel's armour came to grief.
But I'm jumping the gun.
A section of our field company was detailed to make a cross-country reconnaissance of the area from Mersa Matruh to just south of Cairo. The unit would comprise a captain, two subalterns and about 26 men, naturally including Sergeant Major 'Jasper' Boyte.
The transport was twelve or so lightweight trucks. Assurance was given that should no word be beard of the section within ten days the RAF would search for it. Preparations were being made for the journey when CSM Boyte sent for me.
"Thwaites," he began. "Your application for that camouflage course has just been approved. You're to report to Maadi, outside Cairo. But since you're doing company messing duties at the moment, you might as well travel with us as messing sergeant. We're off on Friday, so get our cook and draw the rations we'll need for ten days. You'd better draw emergency rations as well," he added as an afterthought. "We don't know how long we're likely to be."
WOW! I almost screamed.
My heavens had opened. My horizon became limitless. I'd no idea what the course might entail, or where I would he posted afterwards. I'd passed all the courses I'd so far taken and for this one, I had the advantage of an excellent camera !
Surely, I thought, if I became competent at camouflage, I'd hardly be recalled to share the rigours of a field company . . .
My mind was in a whirl: always dangerous when quick personal decisions were involved. Was my euphoria going to cloud my judgement? I didn't much care. And army rations! They offered few inducements for cordon bleu cookery - but we could probably see about that.
This promised to be such a radical change in my life that I can still remember with crystal clarity much of what happened. I remember collecting Bimm Clark, our company cook, and with a number of trucks driving to the quartermaster's stores by the Merea Matruh railhead. I knew the layout well enough from previous visits.
The Army Quartermaster has been a figure of fun for generations of soldiers. He's always fair game, whatever the season. He and his staff have a thankless task, fighting off rogues, liars, scroungers, and always at the mercy of couldn't-give-a-damn exploiters - such as me. The popular ditty, The Quartermaster's Stores, is well known. It has even percolated down to Boy Scout sing-songs, and many of you will have heard it. There's the verse that runs,
They have rats, rats, big as bloomin' cats in the Stores, in the Stores . . . And the chorus that goes:
My eyes are dim I cannot see, I have not brought my specs with me, and so on. Well, I'd decided, we'd see whether or not he'd brought his specs with him.
After reporting the purpose of our visit I was given a young member of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) to help us. To my utter joy he was just what I wanted. I couldn't have prayed for a better assistant. He was young, fresh faced, eager to please, and also to my eternal thanks, he had pink knees! And he wore a sun-helmet; something we'd discarded years ago as too cumbersome. That meant he'd been in Egypt less than a week.
He'd scarcely know the complement of an engineering field company, let alone that of a section. Hooray!
Meanwhile I'd told Bimm, "See that railway wagon at the end of the siding?" pointing. "That's filled with potatoes. As soon as I go to the cold store, take a truck and load as many sacks of spuds as it'll hold, and cover them with the tarpaulin. Then, go across to hardware and indent for all the pots and pans we'll need for stewing, frying, roasting and the rest. Got it?"
Good man! He had. If Bimm was surprised at my exotic choice of rations, he was wise enough to keep a straight face.
Typewriters were always a hazard in the desert. Best kept tightly wrapped against a sudden dust storm, which could wreck them in seconds, so paper work was hand-written. This was a laborious job and prone to errors born of too much trust of the spoken word. But at last we finished. I signed everything our RASC friend asked me to, then we both bade each other smiling goodbyes with firm handshakes.
"What a shitty way to treat a helpful beginner," I hear you mutter. "Taking such a despicable advantage of his beguiling innocence."
Nonsense. We'd merely been helping him learn more about the rigors of Army life, the hard way; the same as the rest of us.
* * *
Early Friday morning we set off in a convoy of open trucks and climbed the steep escarpment to the flat land above. Setting a course east-by-south-east we negotiated the uneven terrain well spread out in line abreast to avoid obscuring each other's vision with dust. But avoiding boulders, camel-thorn and rocky outcrops slowed our speed.
At set intervals we stopped while the officers and Jasper Boyte walked some thirty yards away from the vehicles. This was to avoid any metal interference with the compass' magnetic field, while they took bearings to help with the mapmaking expected of us. By evening we'd only gone some hundred miles when we made camp. Camp was a misnomer. We had no room for tents. Water was more valuable. We'd all sleep on the ground by our trucks, not forgetting to dig the small hollow for our hipbones.
While Bimm was unloading his cooking gear, I shouted: "I want volunteers for spud peeling," and many came forward. Could they have known? We all messed together, officers, NCOs and men. The first course was rump steak, chips (cooked in a five-gallon tea urn), fresh greens and gravy. This was followed by tinned peaches and cream, with coffee to finish. There were no complaints.
The following morning we set off again and the going got better. Level ground with fewer thorn bushes and rocky outcrops; suspiciously smooth in fact - and then suddenly within a few miles, we were in dead trouble. A number of trucks had broken through the thin topsoil crust and were us to their axles in fine sand. Then began three days of the most intensive backbreaking work I have ever experienced.
We were well and truly in the dreaded Quattara Depression. We shovelled sand from our trucks' rear wheels and pushed, but they only sank deeper. We used the metal sandchannels, carried by every vehicle, to wedge under the wheels to give better purchase when we pushed. We got nowhere. We formed teams, using, shovels, muscle and sandmats: lengthy strips of canvas, 18-inches wide, reinforced with parallel lengths of bamboo, to help free those trucks worst affected. We were all in trouble; stripped to the waist, pushing, pulling, cursing, digging, sweating and all getting deeper in the soft sand. We had obviously driven miles into a deep pocket of the Depression with disaster on both sides of us. Only by painfully retracing our tracks to firmer ground were we eventually to get ourselves out. In more than three days we had progressed less than ten miles. During that fiasco we'd all been too exhausted to cook, so we survived on emergency rations and mugs of tea, then at sunset, wrapped in a blanket, we lay down and slept.
Once we'd outflanked the Depression and taken new bearings we made better progress. The terrain was flat and clear of obstacles and we raced in line abreast to make up for lost time.
I remember that for dinner the next evening we were able to serve pot-roast lamb with mint sauce, boiled potatoes and tinned peas, followed by cheese and biscuits and coffee.
Fortunately it was not high-summer, but warm enough to have started to thaw the frozen meat we had started out with, although it was carefully wrapped in blankets. Our answer was to dissect the bulk and store it in large hay-boxes, primitive portable fridges. In this way Bimm and I were able to feed everyone with sumptuous meals every evening for the rest of our journey - as though we were a mobile officers' mess; though without any booze.
The speed and fresh air were exhilarating and we saw much that we were unlikely ever to see again. We passed a group of wild camels that merely raised their heads and watched us with supercilious disdain. We saw huge awe-inspiring buttes; slim pinnacle rock formations as tall as New York skyscrapers, their structure a lamination of dozens of different coloured rock.
One evening we camped in a petrified forest. Hundreds of huge trees lay scattered on the ground. On inspection, their bark could be peeled off, but having been subjected to perhaps thousands of years of arid heat, it had turned to stone, as had the trees themselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the place had an eerie atmosphere and some among us had difficulty sleeping that night.
Then we disturbed a herd of gazelle; though how they survived on such scarce pasture with no water was a mystery. But here was a challenge: could we catch one? It wouldn't be easy, for they ran so fast.
Our answer was Bimm. He was tall and strong, so we sat him in the front passenger's seat, where he hooked his right leg around the gear lever. I stood in the back and held on to the metal roll bar for supporting the truck's canvas cover. From there, having selected a beast I instructed the driver; faster, left a bit, straighten, more left, and so on.
Meanwhile, Bimm leaned over and, yes, eventually he caught a struggling gazelle by the legs and hauled it aboard.
Some other teams were lucky too, so we all stopped for a brew-up and to calm down, for you can imagine our state of excitement. No, we didn't need any more meat so we all released our prizes, none the worst for their capture judging by the speed of their departure.
And so eventually and within our time limit we reached our destination. I said goodbye to all my mates and set off, with high hopes for Maadi. But there are two things worthy of mention. At no time during our journey did Jasper Boyte, our Company Sergeant-Major, nor our three officers, make any mention of the quality or the quantity of food they had been served - which obviously must have been of doubtful provenance!
Some months later, when in Basra I received a letter from a Quartermaster. In polite language it referred to rations drawn by myself on such and such a date in Mersa Matruh, but noticed that there appeared to he an discrepancy concerning the rations drawn, the status and number of the recipients and the reason for the quantities involved. The writer would he glad if I could kindly elucidate. Naturally, I threw it away. And so, during the rest of my Army service, after I had been commissioned, and even when I had returned to the UK, similar polite requests continued to arrive about twice a year.