After we completed our initial training from January to March 1952, it became just a matter of guard duty, marching parades and other boring activities whilst stationed in Canterbury Barracks. The highlight of our existence in those days were our weekend competitions. Being 18 year olds and full of vigour and the joys of life we embarked on a competition to find out who could last the ‘drinking course’ the longest. The ‘longest’ was the main street in Canterbury, possibly Dover Road, which seemed to go on forever and forever, and the idea was to visit every pub on this street, and drink a different drink at each and every one! He who travelled the furthest without falling over, or collapsing, or completely passing out, was the winner, and of course ‘Battalion Champion’. It goes without saying that the barrack rooms and encircling area became full of the awful stench of vomit, which of course all had to be spotlessly clean before parade on Monday morning. Who did the cleaning? Well of course all the losers in our competition, including, dare I admit it, ‘yours truly’!
Of course we had a regular ‘champion'. He was a farmers son, brought up on a farm and as tough as nails. Drink didn’t seem to affect him as much as it did us weak town fella’s, so he was Battalion Champion more times than I can remember.
One thing I did enjoy during our training was the firing range. It was not only a welcome break from our boring daily routines but it actually gave us the chance to shoot things and throw grenades over walls, which to us young 18 year olds was heaven itself. I was no good with a rifle and frequently missed the target altogether, but put an LMG into my hands and I became lethal. I ended up getting some proficiency awards for my marksmanship which I treasured very much.
Suddenly one day we were all called to the parade ground, for a 'significant announcement’ by the CO. We were off to Egypt! Wow, we could not contain ourselves. A lot more illegal alcohol flowed around the barrack rooms that night.
We were told that we were going to ‘guard the Suez Canal’ apparently from some
‘unruly’ natives who wanted to take control of Britains pride and joy!
We left our barracks somewhere around May 1952, but having searched all my records I cannot find an actual date. We travelled by train to Southampton where we were due to embark on a ‘troopship’. The train journey was as fun as could be expected from several hundred young men embarking on a journey to a distant part of the world. But if that was fun, the troopship was definitely as far from fun as it is possible to be. It turned out to be a nightmare. Sick soldiers all over the place and probably more vomit in the sea than ever before. The ship rolled and pitched and at times it seemed that our stomachs were completely divorced from our bodies. Being forced to sleep on hammocks just added to the turmoil as we swung too and fro in the bowels of the ship and many a young man trying to sleep ended up with a huge crash on the floor of the ship. Eating was impossible. Not just because of our stomachs were in turmoil, but also because the food refused to stay on the long benches where we sat and just ended up on the floor anyhow.
I can’t remember how long the journey took, maybe seven to ten days or more possibly?
When we eventually docked in Port Said we were NOT a ship load of fit and healthy soldiers, but a shipload of exhausted, sick and depressed young men. We had lost so much weight none of our uniforms fitted us any more. Of course the Sergeant Major was not interested in our moans and groans, but if anything increased his cursing and swearing at us to the point where we felt he must have travelled to Egypt not in our troopship but in some other luxury transport.
My recollection of Port Said after all these years has dimmed somewhat, but I do remember that it looked just like any modern city, except of course this was Egypt and it was hot and sticky. We found what are called “bum-boats” very interesting as they are native boats scattered all over the harbour selling produce and gift items to visiting tourists. The boats were piled high with almost everything you could imagine and many were actually vying for a plum spot beside the hull of the ships, and goods and money were exchanged via a pulley/rope system. Welcome to Egypt you Buffs.
It was a huge relief to be getting off that terrible ship and on to terra firma, something that did not kick and wobble and go up and down all the time. We were quickly transported from the Port and ended up in a huge tented camp.
After 67 years my memories of what happened to us in Egypt have dimmed somewhat. It is quite amazing what our wonderful minds remember and what they discard. So the best way is just to list all the things that I do remember, in no particular order:
The first thing that sticks in my mind were the huge numbers of Army personnel in Egypt at that time. RAF, REME, RAC, Infantry Battalions, Medics, Engineering, R.A. Catering, and probably many more. At first glance there would appear to be more army personnel in Egypt in 1952 than actual native Egyptians. Everywhere we went there were Army or RAF personnel all over the place.
My overriding memory of Egypt, named at that time as an ‘Active Service’ posting, was the lack of Active Service. We, in the Buffs saw no ‘enemy’ in the shape of physical bodies who wanted to fight us or kill us, and the overriding feeling in the Regiment was one of ‘anti-climax’. We did a lot of guard duty of course, mostly at night, when we guarded the perimeter fence of the garrison in Tel El Kabir, where we were told “if anything moves, or you hear a noise, or see a shadow, shoot it”! To us young lads that sounded like murder. The noise or the shadow could have been anything, even a woman, a child, or an innocent passer-by, and the thought of shooting it or them dead, was anathema to us. After all it was not our country. We were in someone else’s country, and any notion that the Army ‘big-wigs’ had that the soldiers believed in the ‘cause’ of saving the Suez Canal was pure rubbish.
Our biggest ‘enemies’ in no particular order, except maybe No.1. were: Mosquitoes; Sand; Heat; Sweat; and lack of sleep in the heat. The mosquitoes were absolutely awful. We could not escape them, no matter what we did. At night we had our ‘nets’ over our beds but that didn’t seem to hinder the mosquitoes. If there was a small hole in the net, or a tiny gap between net and bed, the mosquitoes found it! Of course we were fed ‘paludrine’ every day for breakfast, which was a good anti-malarial medicine, but it was the incessant ‘buzzing’ and ‘swatting’, and scratching and running away that was so annoying. The sand was awful too, especially when the wind got up, which was a frequent occurrence, and then the sand got everywhere; Up our noses, in our mouths, in our eyes, and our heads were just a mass of matted sand. The heat was incredible, to the point where we spent half our time covered in sweat and we had more showers in a day than we would have in a month back home.
One thing we learned to respect during our tour was the ‘sweet water canal’. Some bright guy in years past coined this very apt name for it because it stank to high heaven. There were dead animals floating in it, raw sewerage, rubbish, bottles, cans
and to top it all the native Egyptians not only washed all their clothes in it, but actually bathed in it as well! We of course were banned from going anywhere near it as it must have been full of every disease under the sun.
And the good side of our tour? There were plenty of those. Swimming in the bitter lakes was wonderful. Except we did not swim, we floated. The water was so full of salt it just balanced our bodies and our favourite trick was to float along, a cigarette in one hand and a coke in the other! Visiting the old caves in Ismalia to look and take pictures of the wonderful ‘murals’ was amazing too.These murals were painted by P.O.W’s in the 2nd WorldWar, and showed their amazing talent. Another pleasure we enjoyed was going to the Cinema. I don’t remember what films we saw, probably old Hollywood films and some Egyptian films maybe, but it was all good fun going to the cinema in a foreign country. There appeared to be quite a few cinemas in the towns where we were billeted so maybe the Egyptians were keen cinema goers too? Of course we enjoyed football; as much as we could get! However it was so hot I remember us being forced to take turns to go on to the pitch, and as each player got exhausted he was replaced with another. All good fun though.
Another pleasure was driving around the Towns and Cities on what was called a Security Patrol’ but which we enjoyed to the full. It gave us a chance to see and witness the huge gap between the" ‘"have’s and have not’s" in the Country. We witnessed beautiful tree-lined streets full of lovely white painted houses and with beautiful lawns and gardens, as opposed to those who had to live in all kinds of slums and shanty towns.
There was a huge gap between the rich and the poor in the Country. Despite this obvious disparity, we greatly enjoyed our visits to Cairo in particular. The beautiful shops and temples and the lovely dancers! And we were keen to visit the colourful markets full of great fresh food and with all their ornaments and Eqyptian art.
This summary of our tour to Egypt would not be complete without reference to the Nile. What a beautiful and life saving river it is. It is literally the life blood of Egypt, for without it Egypt would be just another arid and lifeless desert. It provides not only much needed water but also a great oasis of lush vegetation and greenery, right in the heart of the desert, and enables valuable crops to be grown which would otherwise be impossible in that environment.
All in all we Buffs thought the tour was grand. No enemy, no fights, no deaths, no danger at all. Active Service? To call it that would be an insult to the heroes of WW1 and WW2, and many other awful wars down through the centuries.
Our overriding feelings on the return home were “What were we doing in someone elses’s country? Why were we there trying to take away a Canal that belonged to them and which was in their own country? Surely we were the ones at fault, not the Egyptians?"
When our ‘holiday’ tour was over we returned to England, but how we got there remains a mystery. As I said earlier the brain retains some information but rejects others and our trip home was in the rejection category. I’m sure we must have returned via another troopship but the details elude me completely. If it was not a troopship maybe it was a ‘commandeered’ passenger liner but whatever it was it could not have been an unpleasant trip home or my brain would certainly have remembered it.
After our arrival in Canterbury in October 1952 I do remember we were sent on ‘home leave’ for a couple of weeks which of course was very enjoyable as well as a chance to see our families and relate all our experiences to them.
After our leave was over and we returned to ‘barracks’ again we carried out further training, guard duties and normal army activities until one day in early 1953 a rumour started going the rounds in the Battalion that we were to be sent on ‘active service’ again. Where in the world could we be sent this time as we were not aware of any ‘wars’ going on anywhere ?
Suddenly one day the news broke. We were going to Kenya. Kenya, where in the world was that ? What kind of war was going on in that unknown place. ?
Kenya, here we come. !