A Quiet Time









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Early 1943 was a fairly quiet time for Jim and the 44th RTR generally, as they were withdrawn for re-equipping prior to taking part in the invasion of Sicily later in the year. Jim's letters reflect this relative inactivity with him often apologising that he had nothing to write about. As the months went by his problem would have changed to not having much that he was permitted to write about. There were 8 letters in January, 7 in February and 5 in March before the numbers fell to 3 in April, none in May and one in June. Sometimes a letter would contain three or four dates when he recommenced writing after a break of up to a week or more. Occasionally he reported that he had torn up a letter after re-reading it and had started again.

Of course, it is possible that letters went astray during this period. It is really quite remarkable that so many survived the journey, but surely some must have failed to make it. Jim always recorded the dates on the letters Pip sent to him so that she would know if there were any gaps, but we don't have Pip's letters to give us similar information about Jim's communications.

Western Desert, 12 January 1943

“The mousetrap is still doing yeoman service – this time in the Battalion Tech. Stores where the score to date is five in seven nights – for the first two nights they hadn’t quite got the knack of setting it and the enemy got away with the bait… At Gazala in May the dug-out we used as a canteen and general community centre was alive with them and we had great sport potting them with catapults and bits of paper. Less pleasant occupants were large hairy spiders about 3 in. across with wicked looking mandibles and a greenish-yellow in colour and a large snake about 2 ft. long which we saw several times but never managed to catch. One day we sat in wait for him with rifles but he didn’t appear – just as well perhaps as firing rifles in a hole about 8 ft. square is not to be recommended as a pastime… The kangaroo rat (jerboa) is about as big as an English brown rat – rather a nice looking animal with long hind legs and short fore-paws (it sits up like a squirrel) big round eyes and ears and a tail about six inches long ending in a tuft of hair rather like that of a lion. When scared he taps rapidly and forcibly on the ground with his hind legs as though his legs were urging him to run but he is paralysed at the same time.”

Jim didn’t finish the next letter until 12 February and, apart from one joke, it was decidedly serious in content. Later letters were a little more cheerful in tone, covering topics such as diet, debugging and his delight when Pip sent some photographs from home: he had something new to write about.

Western Desert, 19 January 1943

“I wonder what you are doing now? I’m in bed and it is raining – a large damp patch is developing over my head – it always does but never drips. Maybe you are over playing darts or listening to the gramophone in Gillies’s place. Give him, or rather them, my regards and tell him that if I had known his blasted O.T.C. was going to lead to this I’d never have joined it. I don’t suppose he knows it, but I was the right hand man in the first platoon he ever drilled at the Collegiate and I sweated blood because he was so Scotch that I couldn’t understand a single order he gave! Little did I think in those days that the demi-god in front of me would one day flirt so outrageously with my wife but then little did I know in those days that I would have such a wonderful wife. It just goes to show, in wartime one need not be surprised at anything as I said to Auchinleck one day – and I’m NOT a liar! He and I were great pals for about two seconds or less outside El Adem one day.”

“Mac and Tiger are back again and Tripoli fell yesterday. When I look back over the W/D campaign now over for ever I expect, I find myself peculiarly awed. Once again no doubt it is a Desert, vast tracts of Empty Silence stretching from horizon to horizon – hundreds of thousands of square miles of it monotonously the same to anyone going into it for the first time and yet over which thousands of men could find their way with almost uncanny accuracy… I don’t suppose there is a living soul within a hundred miles of Sidi Omar for instance, once the main Italian strongbox on the Egyptian frontier – the place where we had our baptism of warfare. I can picture it now, in the moonlight, the wire, the trenches, the gun emplacements – all the litter of war, rifles, guns, tin hats, hand grenades, shells, guns, tanks, lorries, respirators, greatcoats, boxes of ammunition, bully beef, biscuits, letters, papers, all in indescribable confusion littering the ground for miles around.”

“Now there will be little there but the mice and the rows and rows of crosses throwing shadows on the sand, men from the 44th (most of B Squadron), the 42nd, the Sussex Regiment, the Punjabis, the Jats, the Jerry 90th Light Division, the Italian 9th Artillery Regiment, the Bersaglieri, the 12th Engineers – they’re all equals now. It seems so demonstrative of the futility of it all. The sum total is rows of crosses, hundreds of miles from anywhere – already forgotten. In the Sinai Desert and around Gaza on the Sinai-Palestine border one can still see the trenchwork of the Great War, just the same as this only the trenches are wider… The crosses are there too – only altogether in a garden – about 4000 of them. Not much advance in 25 years.”

“A certain refugee, very proud of his precise English entered a restaurant and asked for pears and cream. The waitress brought the order. ‘This’ said the R. ‘is not what I ordered. I asked for pears and cream and you bring me pears with cream poured all over them.’ The waitress argued. ‘So’ said the R. ‘to you a woman with child is the same as one and child?’”

“I’ve just read Churchill’s speech to the H. of C. on his return from Casablanca, Turkey, etc. There was a time when I enjoyed his speeches – the days when I didn’t know what I know now. Now his speeches jar me, the speeches of all such men jar me… There is still too much cant and hypocrisy about this ‘liberating’ of peoples whilst N. Africa is blatantly being used as a melting pot of the old Power Politics once more, and Jews cannot be admitted to Palestine etc. from the European abattoirs because it will upset the balance in the M. East. I’m very mistrustful Pip aren’t I?...”

“We’ll all owe a big debt to Joe Stalin afterwards but I fear we’ll have a funny way of showing it, he and Winston are a good match for one another trusting each other as far as they can see but no further.”

Western Desert, 25 January 1943

“By the way – talking of the stockings you received – if there is anything in that line you particularly require I dare say I can get them for you – bags of stockings here – all silk of course. Mac has had an S.O.S. for hair grips, lipstick, etc. and is bunging a load off. Don’t be afraid to shout for Pete’s sake.”

“Fred is emitting a blah about Palestine tonight to the Discussion Group in the library… At present he is awaiting an opportunity to retrieve £10 lying to his credit in a branch of Barclay’s Bank situated in a little god-forsaken hole a few miles from here. It’s amazing where these banks appear – just like fungoid pustules wherever there is a little cash in circulation.”

Western Desert, 8 February 1943

“I wonder if you would be amused to know that I was ‘disinfested’ some days ago? It is the posh term for debugging and I didn’t need it. The one and only occasion I did require that was over twelve months ago when I perforce did it myself. It is a curious sight but not one which is for the view of the opposite sex. Clothes and bedding are given a treatment of super-heated steam and with cunning preparation a perfect crease in the trousers is obtainable. Some enthusiasts submitted berets with unfortunate results. The idea was to shrink them to a becoming size – they shrank all right – very much so, a size 7 emerging about size 2. One was supposed to have a shower while the kit was cooked but with its usual attention to detail the Army managed to reverse the order that the kits were cooked in, so that those ready first found their stuff coming last. This being expected as a natural thing caused little comment. Yesterday the 44th managed to win the Football League Cup 4-0 playing Brigade H.Q. in the final… The Rugby is proving a deadly game – most players end each match in the hands of the M.O. who has as much work to do as during a minor engagement.”

Western Desert, 18 February 1943

“Had a good day yesterday when we had a day out – a little run of 100 miles, mostly cross-country, just to keep us in practice. It was quite like old times only in country different from that to which we have been used (good grammar that?), and the old echelon came through with flying colours, no trucks lost and dead on schedule.”

“In Egypt we lived on onions, cheese, desert pears, melons, marrow, bacon, sausages, lambs’ tongues and biscuits. Here we live on sausages (never bacon), beans, fried bread, sardines, perfectly horrible carrots which have a purple dye in them, indescribable turnips, doubtful meat, rice and dried apricots. There is an occasional variation of course but that is the main menu. Sometimes we have heggs and what heggs! Oh! I forgot the oranges and grapefruit – I loathe Jaffa oranges now and forever – I disown them in entirety.”

“It may sound curious but I doubt if one man in five hundred in the 8th Army could ever state definitely that he knows he has killed a man. 80% certainly haven’t because they never shoot at any. In a tank battalion there are all told about 50 gunners – the only men who generally speaking ever get a chance to kill anybody. All the other hundreds of men are there in one capacity or another to see that these gunners get that chance and of course without these hundreds the gunners never would get the chance. They (I was one) are defensively armed only, with rifle or revolver and their only opportunity to do the necessary is when they get in the soup or at aircraft.”

“Did you know that I’m too old for a Commission in the Tanks? It sounds funny to know I’m too old for something and yet it is so. I’m over thirty you see and they like young men for Officers in the Tanks, and yet I don’t feel old.”


Pip and Dave

Western Desert, 10 March 1943

“If it wasn’t for the snaps I would again be in the unenviable state of having nothing to write about. The said snaps are really good – infinitely better than anything I’ve been able to send to you. I think the light is a bit queer out here at times – too much infra-red or ultra-violet or whatever it is that performs the oracle on sensitised film. I don’t see any changes in you except for the fact that you look thinner than of yore – perhaps it is because of your position holding D.J. on your back – the old smile is the same anyway. He is certainly growing up – there is no doubt about that.”


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