Time for Reflection and Recuperation









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Leave continued for Jim, together with further training that was to lead eventually to the invasion of Sicilly the following year. It is clear from his letters that the break from action was welcome and much needed. Some of his earlier letters had raised questions in Pip's mind and he responded to her concerns by trying to explain his thoughts and feelings.

Western Desert, 20 August 1942

“I’m still keeping comparatively fit physically – although I’ve been very jumpy this last few days. Lord knows why. Perhaps it is the heat particularly in the city from whence I have just returned from leave… Mentally I am a wreck. I’ve forgotten how to think, cannot concentrate on anything for five minutes, cannot read or write without a tremendous effort – it is a common complaint with all Ranks as far as I can gather and is born of Monotony – our greatest evil.”

“Well I suppose it must be getting on towards dinner time 1700 hrs and then I’ve some brasses to clean. Brasses mark you! Good old Army – you can’t lick it – it’s like a toy train on a circular track – it comes back again and again in a rather ridiculous fashion.”

Western Desert, 30 August 1942

“D.J. certainly seems to be on the Active List and I suspect is proving rather a handful. Anyhow he keeps healthy enough by all accounts which is the main thing. Most letters, in fact all letters, from 20 Anf. devote 50% of space in singing his praises… “

20 Anf. would be his parents' house at 20 Anfield Road just along from the football ground.

“I found myself wondering idly at lunch today how many tomatoes I have eaten since I first set foot in this benighted land. It must be literally ‘underds and ‘underds – also cucumbers, marrows and melons. It is funny when one considers it that these fruit – about 99.9% water and little else should grow in such arid places… Eggs and where they come from is also a profound mystery. Logic or common sense says ‘Where there are innumerable eggs there also must many hens be’ but it seems to fall down here… I bought some ‘cream cakes’ yesterday at a certain Y.M.C.A. and abandoned the same immediately. I suspect the ‘cream’ was made from old engine oil.”

Muski Street Cairo

I think this must be Muski Street, Cairo

Jim's caption for the photo was "Fred, Tiger and Bed-Down in the Muisky Cairo Aug. 1942"

The next day Jim sent off a long letter in response to an equally long Air Mail letter from Pip sent on July 9th which had just arrived. He refers to the contents at some length; the stimulus of thoughts from home and Pip certainly gave him plenty to write about.

Western Desert, 31 August 1942

“Firstly, the iron in my soul. I must admit sweetheart to being a visionary revolutionary distorted by a cynical Realism. I am really a horrible person and if the truth were told somewhat of an enigma to both officers and men in the Unit. I state that as a fact I well know. I have been dubbed (in turn) Bolshevik, Communist, Fascist, Defeatist, 5th columnist and plain Crazy and one or two chaps I think treat half seriously my suggestion that I am a star member of the Gestapo and am paid 19,000 reichmarks per month into the Bank of Tripoli.”

“Seriously though I was at one time unpopular as a Defeatist Class 1. I maintained I was a Realist and was just as annoyed at the Complacency of the man in the Army as they were annoyed at my ‘defeatism’. Time and happenings have changed that as most of my forecasts have come true. I forecast last year (a) Our heavy tank losses and our retreat to the Gazala line even when we were at the height of our advance. (b) Our retreat this time although not so far – merely to Sollum and Halfaya. (c) The collapse of the Caucasian Front. (d) Our loss of Mediterranean Sea Power. To me they were obviously going to happen and they did. Now I am being dubbed an Optimist because I think the tide is turning for good and stupid people tell me I don’t know my own mind. I shall never forget the consternation I caused when I announced my disbelief in the Japanese capabilities to attack Australia – it was as amusing as the anger caused by my statement that Singapore would fall. Anyway we have now battled our way to the position of knowing our opinion is treated seriously by some folk. Yes my Pip we have complacency in the army just as much as in Blighty and nothing irks me more. It has cost thousands their lives and will cost more yet.”

After explaining the reasons for the “browned off” nature of some of his previous letters Jim wrote:

“I’m sorry sweetheart that they were as they are but I can assure you that everyone else’s wives, sweethearts, mothers etc. were getting letters in a similar vein. One chap is now very proud of the fact that only three lines of one of his letters even reached his wife – the rest was blue-pencilled.”

He also explained how they came by Xmas presents that he had written about previously.

“… Bluntly put they were dead-men’s parcels posted of course much earlier in the year – the would-be recipients meanwhile being killed – they couldn’t be returned so we drew lots for them. It was a bit grim especially as Xmas Day has something about it and those folk at home didn’t know yet. From the sensible point of view it was the sensible thing to do but somehow in that wadi – the pile of presents all carefully sewn up to prevent damage etc. – rather grim woman mine.”

“I’ve just had another look at your letter – there is lots more to chew over yet… I’m enjoying this sweetheart mine, you’ve made me think again and I needed it badly.”

After some musings on Life and Death and the feelings induced from being under fire he moved on to more mundane matters such as the brands of cigarette he had come across:

 “The finest cigarette I have ever smoked in my life was Dobrudja a Jerry job beautifully made and packed. Unfortunately one doesn’t find many as Jerry unlike his Iteye ‘friend’ leaves little behind him when he scoots. The Iteye also makes very superior lemon, orange and lime juice cordials and evidently uses enormous quantities of ‘Concoro’ a spa water bottled in Valona which makes glorious tea. We’ve pinched wagon loads of it at times. He uses it I think to counteract the various digestive troubles so common in the desert. The only comestible of his that I haven’t tried is his dried vegetables. At least I think that’s what it is – in paper packets about 8”x4”x2” looks like semi-dried seaweed and smells abominably. It’s probably O.K. but somehow I couldn’t.”

Jim recalled a few humorous incidents while afraid that “unless the atmosphere is understood some would fall flat”. Here is a selection:

Scene An aerodrome sometime near the end of Jerry’s present advance. We were on it extremely browned off, tired, worn out, lousy, bomb happy. A solitary Tomahawk flies over. Brens are automatically raised then a disgusted voice says ‘There goes our air superiority’.”

Scene A fatigue party digging a ‘ole has been chewed up for slacking and one man looks as though he has a remark to make. ‘Well anything to say?’ The answer is slow and without heat. ‘If this is Democracy give me _____ Tyranny every time.’”

And one in his own hand, with the punch line echoing the language of the telegrams they had just sent off.

Slit trench humour

He follows up with some thoughts on religion.

“… The finest talk on Religion that I ever had was with an Army Bible Reader whilst I was in hospital at Mersa Matruk. He was dynamic simply because he had Faith – it shone from his eyes and positively radiated from him in a most mysterious way… He had done 12 years in the ranks as a private soldier and had never been inside a church until he was 23… His religion was the Bible alone… My one big disappointment in him was his point blank refusal to believe in any way in Evolution as it was not in The Book… when the raids are on (almost nightly) in he comes to the tents and talks to the bedridden men who cannot shelter. At Mersa believe me that is something…”

“Your descriptions of David (I prefer Dave) I find vastly entertaining.”

This was the first time he used his son's name rather than writing D.J. Both his brother and his father were named David so D.J. would have avoided confusion. Perhaps that was why D.J. became known as Dave thereafter.

“Men I have decided are sentimental beings and many a real tough egg whenever he gets the chance has his wife’s snap hanging up wherever he can. Snaps from Blighty always arouse great interest here and swarms of blokes gaze earnestly and interestedly (myself included) at snaps of perfect strangers.”

“Today Sept 1st is the 3rd Anniversary of the war – I wonder what our position will be on the 4th?...”

A much shorter Letter Card was sent only a day later to warn Pip that a “Green Envelope” letter was on the way which she would probably “receive about Christmas”. He then complains about the quality of the glue on the envelope and continues in the same vein.

Western Desert, 1 September 1942

“This benighted country is full of such petty annoyances. Everything is cheap-jack and inefficient and shows evidence of such cheeseparing as to leave one exasperated. Matches are the limit (a) The head comes off (b) The wood breaks (c) Splutter, splutter. I have seen men hit a whole box with a hammer or stone just to get one light for a fag and even then sometimes it doesn’t work!”

The next letter was written in the library

Western Desert, 6 September 1942

“The library consists actually of a building something like a cowshed about 10 ft x 50 ft in size with a concrete floor, whitewashed walls and a corrugated iron roof… A very fair selection of books is available and the walls are adorned with numerous pictures and maps… the pictures, cut from magazines etc. I leave to your imagination. If representative of Blighty conditions one would say the clothing problem is certainly acute.”

Jim reports that he and Fred Stannier had been taking part in various sports…

Western Desert, 14 September 1942

“I never realised that Pass Ball (a form of Basket Ball) could be so murderous – tonight I’m booked for a duffy at Baseball and also partake of sundry cricket matches… Frederick spends most of his time at a certain very Hush Hush town playing either football or swimming in odd Galas and playing H2O Polo. Yes, yes I know there’s a war on!..”

…and then reports on the consequences.

Western Desert, 24 September 1942

“The result to date is (1) Many aches (2) Two seemingly bent fingers (3) a piece of sticking plaster on face (last night’s contribution from the C.O.M.S. of C Sqdn.) (4) Two skinned toes (5) An extremely sore rib ((6) A knowledge that I‘m not as young as I was… as a member of the winning team… I managed to accumulate 50 fags and a tube of toothpaste.”

Western Desert, 28 September 1942

“I have, since I last wrote, given up my lorry – old Aristotle – and am at present endeavouring to learn the job of a Technical Storeman – up to now it means little more to me than to you. His stock in trade consists of everything from split pins to complete tanks and lorries and with them he plays, lending or giving them to other people and units and writing all about it on mysterious forms using masses of carbon paper.”

About Aristotle:

“… his looks offend the eye particularly after his argument with several Stukas out of which he emerged second best and on the end of a tow-rope. However he still goes and – until a new silencer was fitted a week or two ago – he let everyone know he was going. I don’t know how many pairs of eyes have turned anxiously upwards looking for planes when Aristotle was going well but it must be many hundreds.”

Western Desert, 4 October 1942

“Today is Sunday which means of course that there is little or no work to do officially. I’m writing this in a bell tent or rather the remains of one and it is uncomfortably hot in the same.“

“Two days ago we had some rain, just a few light showers but the first nevertheless since mid-June when we were treated to a sudden murderous hail storm with the hail as big as marbles.”

“At a guess the meal will consist of cheese, cucumber and tomatoes, bread, marj. and jam, tea. There may also be corned beef or herrings. As the meal has been this invariably for three months it is a fairly certain guess.”

Western Desert, 4 October 1942

“The Delta by the way is very sharply differentiated from the desert as though cut with a knife. There is no slow fading off of vegetation into desert conditions but a sudden precise end to quite luxurious growth. One can literally step out into the desert – a weird situation indeed. The Nile is the dirtiest river in the world I’m sure and when in flood is really liquid mud… The water teems with fluke and hookworms in particular and about 90% of the natives are riddled with one or both. Many are blind. They still drink the water in spite of all efforts to stop them and of course bathe in it as well as their cattle… If a soldier falls in he is immediately rushed to hospital and given umpteen injections, etc. otherwise he would almost certainly contract some lovely disease and probably pop off…”

“Your worries at home are rather different from ours aren’t they. I don’t really mean worries – irritations perhaps is the word. I can go to the Naafi for instance and buy as much soap, toothpaste, razor blades, chocolate, cigarettes, tobacco, eggs, cakes, matches, tea, milk, canned fruit, etc etc etc as I like…”

“In modern war Pip mine one gets as close as one ever did and hand to hand fighting is not at all uncommon out here. Tank warfare is at ranges from 6 ft to 3000 yds but anti-tank guns seldom open fire at more than 400 yds. Theirs is the element of surprise as visibility from tanks is extremely poor and their concealment (the A/T guns) is simple. One shot one tank is the motto and usually the result… A few hours of high velocity shell fire is the most nerve racking experience in the world – one cannot hear the shell coming as it arrives before the whistle. There is no time to duck or find a funk hole – it is fait accompli every time and you’ve stopped one or you haven’t but you may in a second or so.”

“We are still secluded as you hoped in your last card (arrived today Aug 26th) and I don’t care how long it lasts… I don’t know how many of the original 44th that sailed from Blighty is still left but I reckon 4 out of every 5 are ‘Off the Strength’ now and that is some going believe me. The majority fortunately are prisoners to the best of our knowledge.”

Nile delta and bridge

"A bridge I cursed and guarded Nile Delta Aug to Oct 42"

"I told you the story - remember?"

“Last night after a 24 hr guard on a bridge over one of the delta streams I watched something that I suppose has happened nightly for ages. It was the Evening Call to Prayer – I’d heard it often enough of course before but this was different somehow… As the sun set behind the village lighting up the tall reeds in contrast to the dark water a man who I had not noticed before climbed into a little square box of sun baked brick built on the water’s edge and floored with clean rushes. Behind him lined up four or five men. He was dressed in a dark blue ‘nightdress’ with yellow sandals on his feet and he wore a red tarboosh round which was wound of white puggaree. Unlike most Egyptians he wore a beard rather Vandykeish. He watched the sun in silence and as it disappeared turned to the East (across the river) cupped his hands to his mouth and sent the Call quavering over the water. It is a typically Eastern call impossible to describe except that it resembles their music – thin flat and reedy – like a wailing soul. Three times he called over the reeds. Immediately opposite his ‘box’ – on the other side of the stream – was a felucca tied to the bank with its huge mast and white sail furled to the tapered boom – all lit up by the sun’s rays although the lower parts were in the gloom. One of the crew stood with his hand on the mast looking like a statue. It was like a glimpse into the Past or the Past living with a rather Grim Present. There was I not six yards from him guarding a modern pontoon bridge with a Tommy Gun – behind his village was a line of railway trucks loaded with all sorts of war material but it didn’t matter and for those few minutes we didn’t exist at all.”


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