Making Peace

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

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A Religious Experience

Throughout the war, I reckoned that someone was looking out for me as I always seem to come through it all unscathed, never more so than when I was in the Holy Land. I’m not a religious person but never in my life did I think I would find myself here. And with everything I’d been through in the war, I suppose it touched me more that it might have done otherwise. There was the River Jordan, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all there right before my eyes. So I took the opportunity to visit the religious shrines whenever I got the chance.

I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was built over the site where Jesus was said to have been born. It looked as though it had been cut straight out of the rock and you had to go down steps to the manger, which had lights all around.  I went to the Church of Condemnation in Jerusalem, which marks the spot where Jesus took up the cross after being sentenced to the crucifixion.  And then to the Church of Holy Sepulchre where the cross had been placed. I put my hand down the hole and was quite touched to think that it was where Christ had been crucified. Mind you, next to it was a glass container with a gold rim for you to put your money in, and not just a penny or tuppence (two pence).  You were expected to put a lot of money in and I could see notes had been put in but I couldn’t afford to do that. If you went down to the crypt, there was the cross against the wall.  It was just an ordinary black cross about 12 feet (3.7 metres) long. You were allowed to touch it if you wanted to.

You could also see the board that they put him on after they took him down from the cross.  His mother, Mary, was said to have cleaned him while he was on this board. The church was looked after by the monks and I was told that they scrubbed the board clean every day. You could see them swinging incense lamps as they chanted their religious music. As you walked around, you came across a big room with a gate on the front, where the monks have their meals. There were wooden tables, benches and bowls but no monks were in there when I visited.  Outside was the cave they laid Jesus to rest after he was taken down from the cross and then where he was said to have risen again from the dead. Nearby, we were shown his footmark in the rock.  It looked very real and too smooth to have been chiselled, just like you had put your foot in wet cement and made an imprint, but in the rock.  We were told that it was where he would come back to earth again in the second coming.

Another time I visited the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was said to have ascended to heaven after his resurrection, and there saw the Church of All Nations, with its beautiful domed roof, where Jesus is said to have prayed before his arrest.  There was also the Tower of Ascension, built on the spot where Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven after his resurrection. The tower can be seen for miles around and from which you can see all the way to the Dead Sea. It was the most incredible view all around. When you see it all, you can understand why it means so much to the Jews and Christians everywhere.

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates

Postman in Jerusalem

My next posting was in Jerusalem where The Royal Engineers had a headquarters where I joined the Royal Engineers Postal Service. We used to work in shifts and on the night shift I would sort the post.  We were supervised by an old Major, whom I’d never seen before.  Well I use to sing my head off at night, singing all the old army songs.  I don’t know what this Major thought of me, but he never complained about my singing, so I reckon he thought I was a happy chap. On the day shift, I would put the sorted mail into sacks and load it on the lorry that would take it down to the main delivery office.  Then I’d have to jump in the back of the lorry to and man a machine gun to provide an armed guard as we collected and delivered the post across the region. We even visited Tel Aviv, which is on the coast and seemed amazing at first although you soon got used to it after a while.

We regularly took and collected post from the main Post Office, which was just like a big British post office, directly opposite the King David Hotel, the British administrative headquarters for Palestine on the West Bank side of the Jerusalem. I’m sure you’ve heard of the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’. Well Jerusalem is on a hill and we had to drive round these winding, switchback roads where it would be easy to just go over the edge if you weren’t careful.  I’d often thought the driver must be thinking: ‘Cor blimey son, keep steady.’ We would go very high and if you were unlucky enough to go over the edge, you would have had it. Eventually we would reach the city gate.  Jerusalem’s old city walls were built in the early 16th century and has eight huge gates built into the walls.   The Western Wall surrounds the Temple Mount, which is the holiest of Jewish sites as it’s the place they turn to face for prayer. It is thought to be the nearest point to the original temple built centuries earlier and finished by King Herod. It’s also known as the ‘Wailing Wall’ because it’s where the Jews have gathered for centuries to lament the loss of their temple.  The Muslims call it the Buraq wall as, on the other side, is where the prophet Muhammed is said to have tied the Al-Buraq, a winged creature that took him from Mecca to Jerusalem, as described in the Quran.  They argue that the Western Wall was only part of a retaining structure that King Herod had built as part of a shopping centre with no religious significance.

Anyhow, I was always relieved when we got past these windings roads and through the gates. However, the bigger threat was from the Zionists, who believed that the Jews should have their own homeland ideally in Palestine. In 1917, the British Government had made the Balfour Declaration to support the creation in Palestine of a national home for Jewish people.  However, with the war looming in 1939, the British Government decided it needed the support of the Arabs to maintain control of assets like the Suez Canal and issued a White Paper that would limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and the plans for the creation of an independent Palestine. The Zionists became increasingly angry with the British Government as it refused to allow Jews to escape to Palestine from Nazi-occupied Europe. Even so there were many Jewish immigrants in Palestine, nearly all of them illegal.  They began bombing British outposts and Government buildings, even snipers started shooting at us. So the threat was very real and steadily escalated until the following year when they bombed the King David Hotel.  This violence was seen by some as the start of the Arab – Israeli conflict that has yet to be resolved. It’s sad to think that the Jews and the Palestinians are of the same heritage but religion has driven them apart.

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates

A wedding, a funeral and a battleship

While I was in Egypt, I saw a wedding and a funeral and it brought home the differences in our culture.  At the Islamic funeral I saw, there were about 50 people all men, making such a noise; wailing and banging tin cans.  They were following the body, which was simply wrapped in cloth (called a kafan) and being carried on a stretcher to the grave. Digging the grave must have been hard work because where we were was all rock; it wasn’t like digging soil.  And it was perpendicular so that when the body was tipped into the grave it was facing Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed.  I was told that if the body falls on its back they are fine and go to heaven but face downwards means they are going to hell.  Above all it was the wailing that really got to me.  The weddings weren’t much better.  They may have been happy occasions and the whole village would turn out to join in the celebrations, but the music they played was awful.  It really grated and got on my nerves.

However, my abiding memory was back on Lake Timsah.  The lake was near the city of Ismailia, about half way along the Suez Canal.  The canal had opened in 1869 and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. It allowed ships to travel between Europe and South without navigating around Africa reducing the sea voyage between Europe and India by about 4,300 miles (7,000 kilometres). It was mostly a single lane with just enough room for the huge ships to pass through and only a couple of passing places in the Ballah Bypass and the Great Bitter Lake.

I’m telling you all this for a reason because the Suez Canal also joins the northern bank of Lake Timsah. One day I took the cutter out onto Lake Timsah and was thoroughly enjoying myself, just rowing to my hearts content.  When you row you can’t see where you’re going as you have your back to it.  Suddenly, I heard this loud noise behind me and turned round to see this huge battleship coming towards me sounding off its horn. Somehow I’d managed to row the cutter into the Suez Canal, right into the path of this huge battleship that filled the whole width of the canal. There I was like a tiny ant to this huge monster of ship. Well you can image my reaction. I was horrified and I’ve never rowed so fast in all my life.  I can’t tell you how relieved I was that I managed to get out of its way and back to the middle of the lake. Thank goodness it sounded off its horn, otherwise I would have been history.

Suddenly, I heard a really loud shout. ‘Hey Brummie.’ The Sergeant was standing on the end of the jetty and has spotted me.  He called me over: ‘Come here, come here.’ So I rowed the cutty over towards him and he shouted: ‘Don’t do that again.’ ‘Do what Sir?  I said optimistically hoping that he hadn’t seen what had a happened but of course he had. ‘I’ve been watching you.  I was worried about that boat. Don’t take it out again.’ ‘Yes Sarg. Sorry Sarg.’ Clearly he was more worried about the boat than me!  Well I didn’t get the chance to take the boat out again anyway, as I was soon posted to another camp.

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates

Learning to Swim

I loved rowing and always took every opportunity I could to row whatever boats were available. There were pontoons (flat bottomed boats) and a cutter available. The cutter was designed for six rowers, three each side but I was very fit and I’d take two oars and get inside the cutter and row out to the middle of Lake Timsah, which was on the Nile delta.

Well I soon acquired a new job. There was an Allied Officers Club on the shores of the lake and officers would go there from the Royal Engineers police, French military and the Polish army.  I would row the boat out to the middle of the lake and the off duty officers would swim out to the boat and use it as a diving platform or just sunbathe on the boat. They also anchored a couple of pontoons out in the middle of the lake, so any of the lads could swim out to them during their free time.

One morning I was at the end of the jetty and our Sergeant came up to me and asked: ‘Can you swim Brummie?’ ‘No’. I replied. ‘Well you ought to be able to, all the time you spend in the water.’  He’d got his bathing costume on and said: ‘Follow me, I’ll show you.  I’ll jump in the water first and then you jump in after me.’ I wasn’t convinced. I was right at the end of the jetty and I reckon it was 1,000 feet (305 metres) deep because of the size of the ships that docked there. ‘I don’t think so. I’m being demobbed in November and I want to go home’. The Sergeant cajoled me: ‘Don’t you want to learn to swim? I’ll be in the water and you’ll never learn to swim if you don’t go out of your depth.  I’ll look after you.’ So in I jumped and up I popped and found myself dog paddling towards the beach.  The Sergeant was laughing at me but at least I did it.  For the next few weeks, whenever I got the chance, I would walk from the beach into the water till I reached my chest and then turn round and swim to the shore and that’s how I learned to swim.

About a week or so later some more troops arrived and one of them was a fellow Brummie from Alum Rock, Birmingham. We chatted when we got the chance and agreed to meet up for a drink after we got back home although we never did. Anyhow I go to know a few of the lads and after they finished their training and had some time off, some of them decided to swim out to the pontoons in the middle of the lake. The encouraged me to join them, so I plucked up the courage and swam out with them.  They were all faster than me but I got there in the end but the boat seemed huge, as high as a house.  But I managed to climb up the side and into the boat and enjoyed the sunbathing.  In fact I got so brown, while I was out there, my skin was almost black.  When the lads decided to go back, they just dived into the water and off they went.  I was left on my own.  I thought ‘Cor Blimey, if I dive in I’ll go too deep.’ So I jumped in instead and dropped like a bag of stones.  I was thinking: ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic, you’re alright, you’re alright.’ Once I had surfaced, I found my rhythm and swam to towards the beach. But I was very relieved when I could feel the ground under my feet.

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates

The War Ends

After my convalescent I re-joined my company back into the army routine but there was a new mood of optimism.  The tide had turned and we were winning the war. The Germans had tried to invade Russia as well as Europe but the Russians had fought back and were winning ground and by April1944 the Russians had reached Berlin. Following the success of the D-Day landings, the allies were advancing from the other side and at the end of April the Allies and the Russians met in Germany, Adolf Hitler commits suicide.  On 8 May, Germany surrenders and the war in Europe is over. A good time to go home you might think, but on the same day that the war ends, I am posted abroad, this time to Cairo in the Middle East.

I was stationed near a ferry point and I found myself working in the kitchens again. Our cook was a Sergeant, a Scotsman called Aled.  He was a nice bloke but he used to like to go into town and get blind drunk, but no one took any notice, neither the army nor the locals. Anyhow, I was given a wheelbarrow and one of my jobs was to bury in the sand any food left over after mealtimes.  This was essential because of the flies. They were everywhere, swarming all around you all the time, even in your mouth while you’re eating.  After each meal, I had to put all the swill in the wheelbarrow and take it over the road to where it was all sand.  There were a few trees that managed to grow that looked like miniature Christmas trees but it was mostly sand.  I would get out my shovel, dig a hole about three or four feet deep and bury the waste food. Well, some Arab children soon got wise to this.  There were about a dozen of them and they used to call me ‘Cooky’ because they thought I was the camp’s cook. I couldn’t understand their chatter but I knew what they wanted. How could I refuse and it made them so happy, I just couldn’t say no to them.  Each time I went out with my barrow, they would appear from nowhere pulling at my coat:  ‘Hello Cooky, hello Cooky’.  I gave them tins to take food away with them but they would just dive in and eat any old food in the barrow, while I was digging the hole.

There was also a young Arab who used to come to the camp on his Hercules bike and could talk in broken English.  He would also say ‘Hello Cooky’  to me. I didn’t know his name, so I replied: ‘Hello Hercules, me live in Birmingham’ as if talking to him like that would help him understand!  Well he became a regular too and I would give him some stale loaves and sometimes oranges or whatever was left over.  I would have a laugh with him even though he was trying it on. ‘You’re my good Cooky, my friend’ he would say. I would ask: ‘Are you married?’ ‘Yes, me married.’ ‘How many children?’ ‘Five’. So I would give him five oranges. He’d come back the next day and I’d ask him: ‘How many wives do you have?’ Each day he had more wives and more children. ‘Three’ ‘You three wives?’ ‘Yes’So how many children?’ ‘Twelve.’ But it made me laugh and I was only going to bury away the food anyway.

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates

Feeling Like a Fraud

It was a bad break and I spent the next few weeks in a London hospital. I had only been there a few days when the Red Caps arrived.  The interviewed everyone on the ward who had had an accident to find out how it had happened.  They were checking us out to see if we had deliberately harmed ourselves to avoid the D-Day invasion.  That would have been difficult given that I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

Florrie came down to visit me and got talking to the woman visiting the man in the next bed to me.  She lived in London, near to the hospital, and she offered Florrie her spare bedroom so that she could come and stay overnight, for which Florrie was very grateful and accepted.  It turned out that the man next to me wasn’t her husband at all.  Her husband was a prisoner of war and she had met this other fellow while he was away.  Well Florrie was known throughout her life for her discretion and she never passed comment or judgment and they became quite friendly.

While I was in hospital the D-Day invasion took place on 6 June 1944. It was supposed to take place the previous day as Eisenhower wanted a full moon and to land at dawn on a flood tide, so there were only a few days to choose from.  In the event bad weather meant it had to be delayed till the next day. Even so, D-day was an overwhelming success and over 150, 000 British, US and Canadian soldiers landed by air and sea and managed to move several miles inland.  Keeping the plan secret had paid off.  The Germans had been expecting an invasion but didn’t know where and when. It had been a huge undertaking, not just getting the troops across but also all the supplies they needed; vehicles and other equipment, fuel and food. Using the Mulberry harbours, that I had helped to build, they were able to move thousands of tons of supplies every day.

The German response was delayed by the fact that they weren’t sure if this was the real invasion or just a diversion, thinking the real attack would take place further north. They missed their opportunity to robustly defend themselves but that didn’t mean to say that many lives weren’t lost.  The casualties varied widely on the five different beaches used for the landings (code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah), but overall many thousands were killed.  I was very relieved that I hadn’t been able to take part.

Eventually my ankle had healed enough for me to be discharged and I was sent to Scotland for convalescence.  Florrie came to join me and it was like being on holiday, the honeymoon we never had.  I had to wear the regulation blue uniform while convalescing, known as the ‘hospital blues’.  That meant everyone knew you were a soldier recovering from injury or illness.  I was embarrassed by all the sympathy I received everywhere I went.  It made me feel like a fraud because I hadn’t been wounded in action.  I felt like one of the D-Day Dodgers, the name given to soldiers fighting on the front in Italy.  This was seen as the soft option instead of being part of the D-Day invasion, but as many of them were killed as well, it wasn’t really fair. Anyhow, it meant that I never had to buy a pint because, everywhere I went people offered to buy me a drink. Even if I tried to explain what had happened, they were having none of it and insisted so who was I to refuse?

Copyright © 2015 Judith Bates