Active Service

Our sergeant was determined to make us into first class soldiers.

 

From the dark, dismal days of living in North Shields I was about to move into the realms of a seasoned traveller. After a short spell working at the Albion Cinema as a young Projectionist, I realised that it would not be long before my Call Up dropped in through my letter box. This would be my one and only chance to see what another part of the world looked like. Yes, as anticipated I reported to the Medical Assessment Rooms at an Army Reception building located on Sandyford Road, Newcastle in April 1946 when I was aged eighteen.

It wasn’t long until I found myself boarding a train in Newcastle Central Station, along with my peers, ready to go along with them wherever we were sent. It turned out we were on our way to Stranraer. I had never even heard of it before. However, it became a journey I have never forgotten to this day. The scenic views were magical and as the twilight took over the colours of the hills and vales appeared to me like another world. Arriving at Stranraer quickly brought me back to reality. There were things to be done – get off the train and quick march to the dock where a ferry took us to Larne. This journey turned out to be one of the worst of my life. The time must have been about midnight or later, I did not own a watch, and the ferry was starting to pitch and toss up and down with the waves. I had never experienced anything like it in my life before.

On our arrival in Larne the light of a new day was breaking through and everyone felt ill. We mustered in an orderly fashion and marched to a large corrugated shed where we would have our first meal since we left Newcastle. From here we were sent by rail to another Army reception centre, called Ballykinlar. This was where we really knew we were in the Army. The Commanding Officer gave us a lecture on how we should behave from now on, do as you are told and you will not come to any harm. Next stop was the issue of uniforms. This was hilarious because none of us wore hats and to start wearing them now seemed ungainly. I didn’t like mine, it just wasn’t me.

Basic training was all we had to think about now, our Sergeant was determined to make us into first class soldiers and he did. We passed out with flying colours with the accompaniment of an Army Band. What a great feeling I got marching to the music. It was time to move on to Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire to be trained as a Wireless Operator. This as you can imagine took a little longer. Everything in my mind revolved around Da Dit Da, yes you’ve got it, Morse Code. After I passed out as an Operator (Wireless and Line) I was eligible to be posted abroad. The next part of my journey would take me to Dover where I took the ferry to Calais and onto a train to Toulon in the south of France. This part of France had suffered almost as much as we had. In Marseilles there was complete destruction with sunken ships everywhere. It was a sad picture of desolation.

Now it is time to move on again, a ship this time that will take me to Port Said in Egypt. Time on the ship was leisurely. For the first time in my life I got to play Housey – bingo to you and me. It didn’t interest me one bit, but I did like sleeping in a hammock. It was very comfortable and you don’t feel seasick, you move with the ship.

The troop ship continued on its way across the azure blue of the Mediterranean to my destination, Port Said. This journey was unusual in one special way, as I celebrated Christmas Day on the ship. I can’t remember all the things that happened – no I was not drunk! At this early stage in my life I did not drink alcohol. Arriving at the harbour in Port Said the ship was met by a dozen or more small boats with Egyptian merchants eager to sell their wares, mainly fruit and fancy goods. Very soon we disembarked and were dispatched by truck to a RAF Regiment camp which we later found out was called El Balla. This camp was situated a short distance from the Suez Canal. In fact getting out of my tent in the morning, more often than not, I would see the full length of a merchant ship sailing along as though on dry land. It was so uncanny I can still picture it to this day.

My fondest memories of my time there was climbing into a Heavy Duty Chevrolet and imagining I was driving this monster all over Egypt. I loved to change the gears up and down for almost an hour and never move an inch. Someone of importance must have taken notice and decided to put the whole group of us in to learn how to drive, thus giving me a chance to put into practice what I had learned changing gears. Unfortunately I never made it to become a driver because too many wanted to be on the course; consequently I would remain a Wireless Operator.

A trip into the nearest town was always a good day out. This was Heliopolis, where I bought my first camera. Wherever I went the camera went with me. I took hundreds of photographs and almost all of them I sent home in my letters. I’m afraid most of them have disappeared. I wish now I had kept them safe. It was while I was in the vicinity of the Suez Canal that I learned how to swim. Not far from the camp was a Lido, a place to relax in off duty periods. It wasn’t much really, just a place to get a drink and something to eat, but the Jetty was all I needed to learn to swim. Leaving the canal area was a sadness, but I had to move on to my next stop which would be the Abu Simbel Temple located south, up the river Nile. To get there I would have to journey by a Mississippi type paddle steamer all the way to the temple; it certainly was awe-inspiring. When we got there we were allowed to go and look inside. It was very dark and it would take a very powerful floodlight to see it properly, but what an experience – I never forgot it.

On board, my close friend and I shared a first class cabin with mosquito nets to stop us getting bitten. It was wonderful sitting in the First Class Saloon, enjoying life as VIPs. I also remember receiving a nasty bite on my leg from a mosquito – it became swollen like a boil. We disembarked at Wadi Halfa and took the train to our final destination, Khartoum. Khartoum is remembered in history as the place where General Gordon was assassinated by fierce natives on the steps of the Governor’s House, on the banks of the Blue Nile. Happily, I returned to my hometown none the worse after completing nearly three and a half years in the service and I loved every minute of it.

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