Mice and EL Alamein









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Jim seemed to have a fairly quiet few weeks before Christmas, although he did go off the radar in mid October. Afterwards he assured Pip that he was not personally involved in the action that had caused the delay in writing. Maybe he was shifting stores around behind the lines.

Western Desert, 9 October 1942

"i often wonder what has become of the lads with whom I originally joined up at Bovvy. Only one came with me to the 44th and he is still whole and hearty – used to live in Fazackerly. There are four or five in a sister unit of ours which came out with us and so far as I know at present only one of them has been ‘unfortunate’ so far. I believe several are still at Home in fact I know definitely of three or four but there are one or two in particular that I would like to know of."

"D.J. is apparently developing into a likely lad and certainly sounds lively enough. It strikes me as strange sometimes to think that he is so completely unaware of J.D.’s existence and so sublimely aware of P.M.’s – all screwy don’t you think? Your caterpillar plague has had its parallel here in the form of a species of ladybird very like the Home variety except that they bite like the devil. Last week everyone was covered with them and also with a rival in biting capacity in the form of an extremely small fly about the size of a pinhead which must consist mainly of mouthparts..."

"I wonder how you progressed at Beresford Road – in a way I feel sorry for the Prof. – he has a halcyonic lot of daughters! Do you ever hear from Jess nowadays or has she passed from your ken? I find it difficult to imagine her in her new environment and I rather fancy she will have had a few shocks by now. It’ll do her good though if she intends to carry on with her chosen line after the War"

Western Desert, 10 October 1942

Jim referred to the need to use his John Player cigarettes in exchange for services such as a policeman posing for a photograph. (See Letters page 13) He continued:

"Talking of buckshees I don’t think I ever told you of the chappie – a true bedouin of the Senussi tribe who came into one of our leaguers (the same as the Boer lager) one day selling eggs… He offered us five eggs for some tea and we asked for seven. After a lot of haranguing of the type dearly beloved by the Egyptian which consists chiefly of derisive laughs and such expressions as Maleesh (Never mind) Alakeefick (I’m not bothered) etc. – he finally gave us the seven for the tea but went to great pains to explain that the price was five and the two were buckshees. When we clinched the bargain he promptly demanded a return of buckshees and went away quite happily with a cigarette. If he hadn’t received the fag then his opinion of us would have been below zero".

After reminiscing about home life and gardening there was a break in the letter and a new date, 31 October, before Jim resumed writing. This coincided with the 2nd Battle of El Alamein when the Eighth Army under Montgomery drove the Axis forces back into Tunisia. Unable to explain the reason for the delay Jim resorted to writing "I'm very sorry that the continuation of this letter is so late but c’est la guerre", before returning to the subject of rose cutting. In fact, according to the Regimental History, this was the time when the Battalion moved to Rafah, on the southern border of Palestine. While there, they were inspected by General Sir Harold Alexander, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, "to whom the Colonel expressed the wish of the Battalion to become operational again as soon as possible". A universal sentiment I wonder?

Shortly afterwards the battalion received drafts of officers and men to make up their numbers; one of 156 men and another of 5 officers and 55 other ranks. Jim explained "This number of reinforcements shows how many we had lost in the desert. We started probably with about 300 men altogether".

He had a wireless.

"I do a lot of listening in at present to the BBC short wave stuff. It may surprise you to know that at present in the lorry we run a £20 wireless set! It temporarily replaces our composite job which comprised an American cabinet, a Power Unit from a defunct Matilda, Jerry valves and an Iteye loudspeaker looted from an Iteye officers mess last year… The nightingale has just finished singing in Berkeley Sqr. and Dear Old Dutch is busy being not swopped."

From time to time Pip and Jim discussed their views on spiritual matters.

"I was very interested in your views as to the ultimate goodness and your belief in an After Life. Keep them sweetheart mine and I envy you those same things although in a way I believe in them as you do. I didn’t know you once had Confessional – that I do not believe in to another human being I’m afraid – it may be my Presbyterian upbringing but I know for an undeniable fact that many who take the confession need it more than the soul confessing – and as for the comfort it gives what is the matter with confession to God if such is so believed in?”

Western Desert, 29 October 1942

“Sorry there has been a bigger gap than usual between this letter and the last but I’ve been peculiarly busy and also broke the nib of my pen and couldn’t borrow another. By the aid of a large file I’ve performed a delicate operation on it and this is the result.”

Jim reported the arrival of a spate of letters and parcels including one containing socks – “I’m wearing a pair now” – before reassuring Pip of his relative safety. “You will have read and heard no doubt that the fighting flared up again out here a few days ago. Don’t worry – this time I’m not in it – rather a change.”

“At present I’m listening to some excellent orchestral music very kindly provided for us, or rather Japan, by Jerry broadcasting systems. He does provide very good music I must admit and seems less liable to fading than the BBC transmissions. We have the set in the truck with an aerial slung on a shovel stuck in the sand outside. The short aerial makes it super-selective and rather a nuisance sometimes to get dead centre on the station but volume is very good.”

Western Desert, 8 November 1942

“The news today of the landings in French Africa is what I’ve been waiting for for nearly two years and it looks as though the old 8th Army has succeeded at last in out-Rommeling Rommel. As I’ve indicated before we’re not in it this time – I almost wish we were as it would be repayment for some of the smacks he has given us this last eighteen months.”

“I’ve had a parcel from Lil for my birthday consisting mainly of books. The mice ate the back off one the first night. I must describe our mice and their nourishment in a letter some time – suffice it now to say that they eat almost anything with a distinct leaning towards the glue in book bindings – there must be at least a dozen of them – the progeny of one which has been eight months at least in the truck. I have made a spring trap out of a piece of wood, an accelerator spring, two split pins, a piece of haywire and two wireless terminals plus the brass hook from a Service Jacket & some tin cut from a pineapple tin (produce of British Malaya). Baited with cheese or chocolate (????) it has so far annihilated three mice in four nights. As it is strong enough to pin down a rhinoceros it makes rather a mess of them and setting it is fraught with as much peril as throwing mess tins at Stukas.”

“We route marched 4 9/10 miles yesterday at a speed, to my jaundiced mind, approaching that of the latest aircraft. I was not amused as I have scarcely walked any further than the cook-house for years and my feet objected violently.”

Christmas 1942

Western Desert, 9 November 1942

The Christmas Greetings letter card for 1942 had to be written and sent off in good time in the hope that it would arrive before Christmas.

Despite the limited space available for the message the Letter Card still had to be checked, stamped and signed by the censor.


Christmas 1942 cover


It also needed a 3d postage stamp


Western Desert, 22 November 1942

“It has been pouring with rain all day and I’ve spent most of it playing Monopoly in the library… Two days ago we celebrated Cambrai Day for which two pigs came to a sudden end. It was the nearest approach to a civilised meal that I’ve eaten for months… Donkey races in the afternoon under such names as Benghazi Gallop etc. produced a few grins… The M.O.’s attempt with a carrot on the end of a pole left his mount quite unconcerned as it apparently had never seen a carrot before…”

“So far my old trap has caught eight mice in the lorry and I think there is only the usual awkward one left which refuses to bite… Fred is still running the library and we attempt Spelling Bees, Quizzes, Brains Trusts, Discussions, etc. He is also running a Book Club for which we pay the equivalent of 2/- per month… I’m trying to smoke a pipe again – I’ve still got the one I had at home – a little chipped and battered I’m afraid.”

Western Deserrt, 26 November 1942

“I was wrong when I said there was only one more mouse – the score is now ten and there are still more to come… I’m anxiously awaiting the cash you said you had sent off. That sounds very mercenary but the fact is that I stand a chance of getting 7 days leave over Christmas with Fred and one or two others and don’t want to miss it… Fred at present is waiting news of his brother now that the Japs have decided to release names of P.O.W. at Singapore. Very nice of them after 12 months have passed – I don’t think… I wonder if D.J. can stagger around on two feet yet? The horizontal stage will soon be over n’est-ce pas? It is a damn nuisance this War sweetheart and the fact is brought home to me very forcibly at times.”

Western Desert, 30 November 1942

“I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that our new M.O. is an Irishman from Cork. R.C. of course and he practised amongst the Liverpool Irish in Cazneau St… His house and Surgery were flattened in the May blitz he told me.”

“I listened to Churchill the other night and wasn’t as much impressed as I used to be. I don’t wish to be a pessimist but it is possible that the church bells rang too soon. I think Africa will see much heavy fighting yet before Jerry is finally dislodged by either the 8th or the 1st Army.”

“I see we have been graciously granted permission to recount personal experiences up to Oct 23rd the date of the commencement of the Alamein push. I have none to recount I’m afraid that would be of any interest.”

“By the way, I have discovered that our M.O. had our noble friend Horace Ingham as an assistant just before the War. He didn’t know that I knew him and told me he was a very capable man indeed… once performed an obstetrical op. that he himself wouldn’t touch.” The M.O. also “frequented the Stadium and Liverpool soccer. He scorns Everton!”

Western Desert, 13 December 1942

“I must have missed a card or two as I didn’t know that Jess was on her way to the old homestead. So she cooks for the Officers Mess does she – we could do with some cooks out here at times – I thought she was one of the Ack oblique stroke Ack ladies but apparently I’m mistaken.”

Back in April 1942 Jim and Fred were photographed in a gun-pit (See Letters page 10). It had taken until December for the film to be processed, prints made and collected, and for the postal system to (hopefully) deliver them to Liverpool. Even this air mail letter only reports that they have been sent, not their arrival.


“Wait till you see my gun-pit! ’ollered ‘im out wiv me own ‘ands I did through almost solid limestone… You can see in the snap how I face (undaunted) fearful odds but he is obviously facing no odds at all. The only time the pit was used in reality was once when there was no gun in it (it as usual being in pieces on the tail-board of Aristotle). It was used by about ten of us all at once when certain aerial noises indicated the possibility of immediate offensive action being taken against us. The average time taken to get into the pit from a distance of some ten yards was about a fifth of a second. I was first!"

"A most inglorious episode especially as the planes were only R.A.F. fighters disporting themselves about ten feet from the ground. Inversely, the last lot of fighters I saw disporting themselves at a similar height turned out to be Messers 109F’s and that time I was watching them nonchalently with a tin of water in each hand. Very perplexing this aerial warfare is to the onlooker.”


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