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For Queen & Country...
I was a soldier once. You’d not think so if you could see me now. The curly red hair, the steely blue eyes and the lean hard body have long gone, metamorphed into the tubby, watery eyed, baldy I am today. However, the memories of my tour of duty serving Queen and country in the Canal Zone have remained sharp and fresh in my mind.
I never attained a rank other than private and not even a first class one at that. I couldn’t take the army seriously - being there for the laughs not the stripes. I found it difficult to take the military machine with any sincerity when ordered out on escort to the battalion pipers.
Our commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Pine-Coffin, (recently deceased) could not bear the wail of this said instrument of torture, so the piper or pipers were shuttled off into the desert to practice. An armed escort was required to protect them from being sniped at by the Fedayeen; an unenviable duty but to my knowledge no piper was ever shot; the Egyptian terrorists being of the same mind as our CO, kept their distance.
During this tour of duty I did once attain an honorary title, I/C (in charge of) tadpoles; the honour being bestowed on me by Captain Hoppie, the battalion’s punch drunk, boxing champion.
Surrounding the battalion officer’s club, were shallow channels filled with semi-stagnant water where, despite the heat, frog spawn somehow managed to hatch into tadpoles. As water in the desert tends to evaporate quickly, few of the tadpoles made it to frogs. Captain Hoppie was most concerned about this and charged me to count their numbers daily and report back to him; woe betide me should I be one short. I counted myself as lucky to get such a cushy number and never envied his batman who had the extra duty of polishing the two brass, belt runners worn by the captain to keep his cauliflower ears under control.
If there had ever been the slightest chance of my reaching the dizzying ranks of lance-corporal, it was scotched by the Battalion’s Glaswegian contingent when their attempt to decapitate the company’s Colour Sergeant failed, bringing disgrace down on all of us - guilt by association.
There were those who believed that Sergeant Heffernan deserved decapitation. It was the man’s bounden duty - despite the diabolical bugle call announcing each morning’s five-thirty reveille - to ensure every soldier was instantly out of his bed. This he did prior to the dawn’s early light, charging downhill through the line of tents at top speed, screaming the blasphemies that sergeants - before the days of political correctness - were want to scream. Such energy and foul language was enough to upset the volatile Glaswegians, so they cooked up a plot, which if successful, would rid themselves of an unloved colour sergeant and ensure them of a few extra minutes in bed.
Moascar Garrison was on the edge of the inappropriately named Sweet Water Canal and a couple of miles outside the town of Ismailia. There were a few brick, barrack blocks but the majority of the troops lived in tents. Because of the nature of the terrain, many of these tents were erected on a slight incline and it was down one of these slopes that the corpulent sergeant Heffernen would launch himself, roaring his oaths and threats. It was on one particularly steep incline that the Glaswegian lads strung a wire, meticulously calculated over many evenings and numerous pints of beer, to the exact height of the sergeant’s fat neck.
To a point their scheme worked. Heffernen kept his head but lost his voice. On his eventual recovery he would silently review each morning‘s parade, an unsightly red scar blatantly made visible, nodding in a sinister manner to those individuals he believed culpable of the heinous deed.
There were also sad moments, which brought the reality of army life back in focus. We were to take part in an airborne exercise in the Sinai desert. One of our mates from Burnley – we had both joined the Parachute Regiment at the same time and had gone through all the pre-Para courses together -refused to take part in the jump. For this he was sentenced to 45 days in the military prison (this jail was later used as a model for ‘The Hill’, and in reality there was a lot more brutality there than portrayed by the star, Sean Connery). Our friend returned briefly to the battalion, before being posted out of the regiment, a broken man at eighteen. It took a lot more courage to refuse than it did to jump.
There were other guilt by association circumstances which kept me permanently in the lower orders; trivial incidents I would not wish to bore the reader with but there were a couple to which I could genuinely plead guilty.
One evening, a few of us sat drinking with the battalion bugler who, being on-duty should not have been imbibing at all. As the evening wore on and the beer flowed, we bet him, that instead of the evening’s “Last Post”, he would play something a little more modern.
Believing he would not be keen or brave enough to take up the bet, we paid no more attention to him, apart from a warning about being caught drunk on duty. You can only imagine the moment of silence in that NAAFI bar, when the first clear bars of “Oh mine Papa” rang out across the camp and through the still of the evening, followed by the hilarious cheering of all those present. Our bugler bravely won the wager at the cost of seven days detention and two broken teeth, suffered when he fell, face forward with the bugle still glued to his lips.
Despite being in Egypt I never did get to see the Pyramids although I was given the opportunity. Pinned to the company notice board one morning, were two rare invitations; a day trip to the pyramids or to Port Said. Some senior being must have realized that apart from us ransacking houses in Ismailia in search for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, trooping the colour through that city, led by Pegasus, the battalion's donkey mascot, painting the garrison’s kerbstones white and keeping the perimeter sand smooth, we had learned nothing about the country we were occupying.
Naturally my first choice was the pyramids but a couple of mates led by an older soldier (23 years of age) who had visited Port Said during a short stint in the Merchant Navy, easily persuaded us that the pyramids were going nowhere and the city had more to offer than a couple of towering piles of old sandstone.
I don’t recall the number of buses needed for the pyramid’s pilgrimage but only one half empty bus, including a couple of military policemen, left for Port Said and me and my mates were on it.
Being eighteen years of age and educated under the very, very last remnants of imperialism, it never occurred to me that there were (amazingly still are) some foreign countries that did not look kindly on the English. No one had ever explained to me, why and what we squaddies were doing in the Canal Zone ever since Gladstone’s ‘temporary occupation’ of 1882 and if they had it would have made no difference – I was just obeying orders.
Arriving at Port Said we were informed that only two main thoroughfares fronting the harbour were available to us. The rest of the city, beyond those two boulevards was considered too dangerous and was strictly out of bounds. Such information was all the four of us needed, and led by our intrepid guide we headed straight for the old quarter, found a bar where we were welcome – or so it seemed – and started on the Arak, the Mediterranean gut-rot.
It did not take us long to start behaving as the original role models for today’s football hooligans, the memory of which, after all these years, still causes me acute embarrassment. We were subsequently arrested and beaten by the Egyptian police in their half hearted efforts to save us from the mob we had enticed by our outrageous conduct and were literarily tossed into a cell in a local jail, to be spat upon by the Arab inmates in neighbouring cells before being handed over to the two military police who had travelled with us to prevent us doing exactly what we had just done. It was back to Ismailia in disgrace, the rear of the bus being converted into a temporary holding cell for the four of us.
The outcome of our cultural outing to Port Said was 14 days jankers, but as we were already confined to barracks by the political situation, this meant the loss of what relatively few privileges we still had. Apart from twice daily, hard physical exercise regime, the chief punishment was to keep the sand smooth. This entailed the use of a 3 X 3 m2 square of coconut matting with long ropes attached to two of the corners. With a pair of us to each rope we dragged the lead heavy carpet, to and fro, under the burning sun, along the whole length of the camp perimeter; sometimes with a none too friendly MP standing on the mat to urge us on.
The purpose of this penance was twofold. It was the regular form of castigation for wrong doers but primarily, when the sand was kept smooth it served to detect if any attempt had been made by the Fedayeen to get through the perimeter wire and into the camp. So we were not only keeping fit, we were doing our bit for the security of the camp.
I’m still not sure if it was due to our behaviour or the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian defence treaty but it wasn't too long afterwards that British army started to pull out of the Canal Zone. I was one of those ordered to remain with the rear party and was one of the last British soldiers to leave Egyptian soil, which I suppose, may have been my fifteen minutes of fame.
Bryan Thomas. 2 Para (1953-56)