In September 1945, those of us in group 21, due to be demobbed were posted to a camp near Cairo, Mit Akaba I think. We had to sleep in tents each with 4-5 beds on concrete floors. We had to hand in all our regular kit, our uniforms and helmets and were just left with our khaki drills, our ‘KDs’ as we called them. This was our short sleeve shirts and shorts for hot climates. We also had web anklets that helped to keep the sand out of our boots. There were no parades anymore, we’d finished with all of that. At the same time, we were still in the army until we were demobbed (or demobilized) and couldn’t do anything we wanted to. I just lazed around lying on my bed, writing letters home to Florrie and my parents.
One day, I was lying on my bed having a snooze, when all of a sudden, four big Germans came into the tent. They were prisoners of war and they had to come to sweep out the tent as part of their prisoners’ duties. I didn’t feel any animosity towards them; they were soldiers just like me and the war was finally over. We didn’t know about the concentration camps then or I might not have felt so friendly towards them. But anyhow, I said: ‘Morning, anybody speak English?’ They clicked their heels and one of them, a German officer, said he could speak a little English. I stood up and shook hands with him: ‘Well the war is over and we’re all going home.’ Little did I know how much Germany had been bombed at the time. I know that not everyone agreed with this, but Hitler had said he was going to reduce England to dust, so I don’t think we had any choice. I’m sure a lot of Germans didn’t want the war either. I said to the officer: ‘Now look was wicker Uncle Adolf has done and he still didn’t win the war.’ The officer translated what I had said and they all burst out laughing; they couldn’t get over me calling Hitler Uncle Adolf. I trusted the German soldiers to the Italians or French any day. They seemed more straight forward to deal with. The Italians seemed crafty and the French didn’t seem to bother about anything. Mind you I would try and get on with whoever I found myself with and often used to share my cigarettes with the French soldiers. I would buy Woodbines, which were cheaper for us to buy from the NAAFI and say: ‘Here you are share these amongst you.’
Every morning I would go over to the parade ground, where a blackboard and easel listed the names of the men going home. Each day you had to check it for your name and the boat you’d be going home on. Here would be dozens of names and mine never seemed to be on it. I thought they had forgotten about me. One brilliant morning, I went to the blackboard and there was 1911458 Sapper W Chambers. ‘That’s me’ I thought and I was so relieved and excited. I had to then go back to Company HQ and was issued with a white kit bag, a stencil and a sheet of paper with a diagram showing what to write on the kitbag and where. I was told to stencil the bag with my name, army number, the name of the ship (a Dutch boat called the Dom Bollerment) and G6 (although I didn’t know what this stood for). I went out onto the parade ground to look for somewhere to get down and join the others doing the same. I don’t know why but a German officer came across to me. I knew he was an officer as, even though they were prisoners, they were allowed to keep their uniforms and rank. It was a grey/blue colour and they looked very smart compared to us. Well this German officer came over and he was smiling at me. I was immediately suspicious as I wasn’t used to seeing a German smile and couldn’t understand what he wanted me for and I just glowered at him. He didn’t speak any English but just said ‘Yes, yes.’ and got down on his hands and knees and stencilled my kitbag. I wish I’d had a camera to take a photo. He knew exactly how to use the stencil and he did a lovely job. When he got up, I had never felt so embarrassed in all my life. He was smiling again and I think he knew how I felt. I said: ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’ I gave him a packet of woodbine I had in my pocket with about 4 or 5 cigarettes left in it. Florrie used that kitbag for years after to put our dirty laundry in.
Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates