Tuesday, March 8, 2011


When King Farouk -- the unpopular playboy king of Egypt -- was deposed in a coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in the summer of 1952, Britain lost its only supporter in Egypt who tolerated the presence of British Army and RAF bases along the Suez Canal. From then on, after signing a treaty with Nasser, Britain reluctantly began a gradual withdrawal of its troops until, in 1955, the last unit had left Egyptian soil for ever.
Serving in Egypt during the winding-down and evacuation of the bases was unrewarding and demoralizing. A year after the coup, when I was twenty-two and a lieutenant in the South Staffordshire Regiment, we were sent from Germany to Egypt to relieve another battalion that had just finished a three-year stint in the Suez Canal Zone.
After the comparative comfort of a former Waffen SS barracks in green, wooded Westphalia, we in the Staffords took a dim view of being sent to live under canvas in the Egyptian desert. Besides, we realized that it wouldn’t be very long before we’d get marching orders for our own unceremonious withdrawal from Egypt, and spend the rest of the overseas tour in some other troubled part of Britain’s shrinking empire. Maybe in action against the Mau Mau in Kenya, or Chinese insurgents in Malaya.
       Within weeks of receiving the order, the whole battalion -- about seven hundred strong -- traveled from Germany by train and ferry to its regimental depot at Lichfield, in the center of England. First, the unit was sent home on leave, since none of us would see our families for a few years. Then we spent a week or two at the depot, our arms sore from a battery of inoculations, while we were fitted with tropical uniforms and equipment, did training exercises and sat through lurid movies about malaria and venereal diseases.
       Nowadays you can fly to Egypt in a few hours, but this leg of our journey by sea took fourteen days in an aging troopship. We steamed south from Liverpool, across the Bay of Biscay, through the Straits of Gibraltar and down the length of the Mediterranean to Port Said.  Here the day temperatures were around one hundred-fifteen degrees, and for a day or two we acclimatized in a tented transit camp behind high barbed-wire fences seemingly right in the center of nearby Port Fuad. This pause was an absolute necessity for most of our troops, young draftees aged eighteen or nineteen, who had until then regarded three consecutive seventy-five degree summer days in England as a heat wave.
       Our final destination was to be Tel-el-Kebir, deep in the desert some seventy miles east of Cairo. This last lap was a nightmare journey by train, in almost unbearably hot, antique passenger cars whose windows had for some unexplained reason been boarded-up. But the need for the boards soon became clear once the journey began. As the train crawled, stopping and starting through towns and villages, hostile Egyptians threw rocks at the wagons as we went by. Our armed sentries, stationed on platforms at the end of each car, had been ordered not to retaliate.
       In the comparative cool of that evening we arrived at Tel-el-Kebir which, ironically, had been the scene of a British victory a century earlier against The Mad Mullah, a brutal, devious Islamic extremist leader who, in several ways, seems to have been a pre-incarnation of the late Saddam Hussain. The village of Tel-el-Kebir itself had long since become no more than a cluster of rocks in the sand, but nearby was the huge army camp that we soon learned to call Tek.
       Tek was a vast storage depot for tanks, trucks, arms, ammunition, radio, telephone and other equipment. It lay like a canvas city in the desert, with a population of several thousand people from the administrative and logistical arms of the service. Around it were two seventeen-mile circles of dense barbed wire, between which lay a minefield of anti-personnel mines.  Seventeen powerful World War II anti-aircraft searchlights, each in a nest of sandbags atop a twenty foot high tower, faced outwards over the sand, manned at night by Askari Scouts from Kenya.
       One of our jobs, alternating with another infantry regiment, in addition to providing a stand-by force within easy reach of the whole Middle East, was to provide mobile and foot patrols to guard the perimeter of what must have been one of the biggest strategic military storage depots in the region, and worth millions and millions of dollars. Much of the equipment in Tek would have been valuable for the Egyptian forces, especially at this early stage in Egypt’s revolution, before Nasser had completed a later deal for arms purchases with the Czechs, who acted as a cover for Russia.
       This was a grindingly tedious and, too often, a tragic assignment. On some nights we patrolled the perimeter in jeeps with their lights switched off, and with automatic weapons mounted on their hoods.  On other nights, we lay in small, armed groups by the wire, accompanied by killer-dogs trained to tear out the throat of any intruder. Their RAF handlers assured us that the dogs would never turn on us, and they never did. But on more than one occasion I had the gut-wrenching experience of seeing what they could do to those they were trained to attack.
       The awful truth about those patrols was that the men who risked and often lost their lives to break through the perimeter weren’t well-fed soldiers, but needy fellaheen, peasants. Their bodies were pitifully thin and their clothes ragged. Surely they knew about the minefield, the searchlights, the constant patrols, and those dogs?  Nearly sixty years later I’m convinced that, driven by poverty, they were only there to steal and sell whatever they’d stolen. And where does that conclusion leave me and my comrades morally?  Only occasionally did we shoot it out with people who seemed to be trained and well-armed, and the likelihood is that still these were simply better organized gangs of villagers.
       Eighteen months in Tek were an eternity. Apart from one weekend in Cairo, our only escapes were brief liaison visits to a British fighter squadron in Jordan, and another RAF station at Habbaniyah, in Iraq. But for the non-commissioned men there was no release at all.
       Our next stop wasn’t Kenya or Malaya, but much closer. On the Island of Cyprus, a group of Greek partisans, who had harassed and terrified the Germans and Italians in occupied Greece during World War II, were training Cypriot terrorists to drive the British out of Cyprus, and to unite it with Greece. I didn’t know at that time that I was about to spend four years in Cyprus, two as a soldier and two as a police officer. But, then, that’s another story.

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