Sergeant Harris

By now we were a fully trained Field Company and with our numbers complete, moved to Bulford Barracks on Salisbury Plain.

The better to give us Field Engineering experience we took part in many large-scale Southern Command manoeuvres. Doubtless these were because of the growing unrest in Europe and Africa: Mussollini subjugating Abbassinia and Hitler grossly annexing parts of Europe for his Third Reich. It was no surprise therefore when we learned we were shortly to travel to Egypt.

But first we had to be inoculated, and here the Army took no chances. You're not going to believe this, but we were all lined up outside the medical centre and told to roll up our right-arm sleeves. Then, each of us was given an arbitrary injection with the same needle of a huge hypodermic syringe: the hefty cocktail, promising to guarantee immunity against everything from bubonic plague to homesickness.

Two places ahead of me, Hunkey Jackson, our ex-boy heavyweight boxing prodigy collapsed slowly, almost gracefully to the ground in a dead faint shortly before he was to encounter the benefits of modern medicine.

The effects of our jabs were soon to be painfully apparent and we were told we could all have forty-eight hours excused duty.

Then an old sweat took me aside. "Take my advice, Lad," he said. "Drink gallons of NAAFI tea, then go for a hard five-mile march, swinging your arms like a bloody madman." And it worked, for I returned, none the worse, to find my mates groaning in unison on their beds, covered in sweat.

Then in quick succession, boarding a troopship, contributing copiously to the surf of the Bay of Biscay, intrigued by flying fish and dolphins swimming alongside in the Mediterranean and disembarking at Port Said. One remarkable discovery: I found I could hang by my toes from the ship's overhead piping; a skill I have yet to put to any gainful purpose.

By train, we travelled to Cairo and were based in Abbassia Barracks.

The heat, the flies, the smells, the food, the currency, the beer, and the crowds of multinational people took us a few weeks to assimilate.

My first shock was in Cairo's busy main square. From an open manhole emerged two huge sewage workers, carrying shovels; both totally naked and both enormously well endowed. Almost, I thought, beyond the bounds of anatomical possibility - yet not a head was turned!

Eventually, kitted out with tropical clothing, we travelled by train along the North African coast to make camp at El Daba, then no more than a map reference near the sea; its only physical features, three tired palm trees leaning towards each other as though for company.

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Sergeant Harris was tough. He was big, strong, and sunburned, with the physique of a heavyweight prize fighter. He was a 'regular' and had seen action in Palestine before the war. He was our section sergeant.

We, the junior and the youngest of the recent company intake, had an average age of perhaps twenty-one or -two. We listened to his campfire stories wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Palestine pre-war. Jews against Arabs and British; Arabs against British and Jews. A grainy proving ground for heroes - like Harris.

Trains derailed, roads mined, each nationality ambushing the others. Sergeant Harris had been there and seen it all. He obviously knew the ropes.

The more we listened to his stories of danger and the tensions of night-patrols when blankets were wrapped around men's boots to deaden the sounds of their movements, the more we agreed: he's the man to have around if the going gets rough.

War had only just started in earnest and so far - at least for us - all had been quiet. We were still camped at El Daba, on Egypt's littoral plain bordering the Mediterranean.

Some two thousand years ago this had been an important grain producing area for Egypt, and of course, for its Roman army of occupation. Rainfall then had been frequent, but violent climatic changes, and the Bedouin's goats, which had yet to ravage the landscape, devouring anything that grew, resulted in today's largely barren desert.

With the abundant rainfall, and plentiful slave labour, catchment cisterns had been cut into the rock face to conserve the surplus water. These underground tanks are still there. Totally dry now of course, some of them are the size of a house, entered only by a vertical shaft some metre or so in diameter: hazards to be avoided, especially at night.

We were queuing for a meal when the Axis bombers struck. Naturally we scattered. So unexpected; we hadn't even heard them coming. Two or three lorries were ablaze. A petrol bowser was burning itself out, the black smoke rising hundreds of feet in the air. Surprisingly few casualties.

Discipline. Roll call. Who were unaccounted for? Only Sergeant Harris.

By his shouts he was eventually located at the bottom of a cistern into which he had jumped. He was gently lifted out with two broken legs, while regretfully, we the youngsters of his section, fell about hopelessly howling with laughter.

Copyright Bob Thwaites, 2007