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Camplife: desert soldiering


We make a pint of water do our washing for the week,
Folks, you have a try, but watch the basin doesn't leak
And don't forget that in that pint you also ought to bathe,
Brush your dentures, wash your hair and have a ruddy shave.
from 'Desert Madness' by Leslie Howe, Oasis.

No matter how desolate the
area someone would appear.

To describe it would be to say it was a bastard place. It was like living in hell, a real hostile environment, no water, no amusements or buildings, no birds or vegetation, only camel thorn which scratched one's legs causing huge weeping sores. Near the coast the sand was a dazzling white which at midday gave off an intense glare which made one's eyes ache. The only company was your mates and of course myriads of flies, bugs, sickness and danger. Scorpions, snakes and centipedes were often found in the tents. 'Fly I Must', LA Bramley.

Troops became more familiar than they would like with desert life whether North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria or Jordan. (In North Africa the desert was known as 'the blue'.) The enemy wasn't only the Afrika Corps or sundry terrorist and bandit gangs but nature itself was a formidable adversary with unfriendly wildlife, unpredictable sand storms, sudden flooding and extreme heat. Men were faced with a relentless effort to keep healthy and sane. Navigation was often challenging in spite of roads and temporary depots marked by barrels or petrol cans. These, and any truck in front, could soon be obscured by sudden sandstorms. There were proper roads near the coast but not much elsewhere. During the war, for a night attack, cans sometimes had lights inside and cutout symbols to mark, for instance, 'boat' or 'sun' track to, with luck, show units the way. Maps often had large blank areas. Jim Palmer describes the art of desert navigation which included "There was one gem of knowledge passed on to us that I'm sure saved many lives. If you pointed the little finger of your watch at the sun, then divided the distance between the little hand on and the figure twelve. You have a line running north south. At least, if you know where north is, you're not completely lost."

On the other hand the desert could be very beautiful for those with time and an eye to appreciate it.

" A quick change after Autumn rains: the landscape was a mass of greenery, the dunes were covered with jasmine flowers which gave off a lovely perfume. The wadis were coated with a lush green carpet. All types of insects buzzed around, rats and gerbils were feeding on the greenfly. I saw a pretty little kit fox gobbling down insects and chasing the small animals. There were lots of lizards and hedgehogs." 'Fly I Must', LA Bramley

Desert camps and facilities

Men often lived for many months in tented desert camps in maximum discomfort. Water was limited and a small allowance had to cover all needs so washing body and clothes was a bit skimpy. There were, however, mobile bath units if you were lucky and field kitchen cooks managed best they could with varying degrees of success. Everyone, however, had the means of making their own brew up; there was always time for tea no matter what. If you were travelling then you had to carry all the water you might need as well as fuel. Loos were rather rudimentary:

"There was a long row of toilets surrounded by a high hessian screen. Inside were long box arrangements placed over a trench which was about twelve foot deep. When one sat on the throne the whole line of toilets would start to rock alarmingly at the slightest movements. Most airmen picked up a spade and walked out into the blue there to dig a hole, filling it in afterwards." Fly I must, LA Bramley

Awful as this was it wasn't always that much better in England. In 1939 when Ken Powls first joined up he was introduced to the joys of a primitive contraption at Clairvaux Castle near Darlington where virtually no arrangements had been made for the new recruits and the facilities:

"...consisted of a telegraph pole, supported at each end by trestles, spanning an open trench. Such a visit was, therefore, al fresco, communal and dangerous. Anyone falling into the trench was mocked mercilessly, but from a distance." Many Lives, Ken Powls, RASC.

It's all relative, but walking off into the blue with a spade would seem to be by far the best option.

General travel and convoys

Most troops, both during and after the war, spent a lot of time driving around the Middle East. During the war there were the major convoys moving through North Africa and those to Russia through Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Persia. After the war there were the supply runs through from Egypt to Palestine and at the end of the Mandate runs back to Egypt with equipment and men. As well as the stereotype desert of rolling dunes of soft sand to get stuck in, there were hard, gravelly surfaces which enabled men like Ken Powls, RASC, and his mates to drive five trucks abreast along the Iraq/Haifa pipeline chatting and passing fags. Roads themselves could be very dangerous, especially when twisting through mountains, often with appalling surfaces and sometimes very steep; accidents and breakdowns were commonplace. Endlessly changing wheels and fixing engines was an inevitable chore of many journeys.

"It was 100 miles to Palestine and for much of the distance we travelled through a 'picture-book' desert with huge sand dunes gracefully moulded and sculpted by winds, with high golden crests clashing with a clear blue sky. Fringes of sand blowing over the high ridges revealed how these colossal tonnages of sand moved across the landscape. Egyptian workers were engaged in an endless task removing sand from the road surface as our convoy pursued its course out of Egypt." A Private View, Bill Garrett

Health problems

The heat could really get to you: "One afternoon I was in my billet sat on the bed reading a book when in walked a tall thin man who had a large RAF type moustache. Apart from a wide leather belt around his girth he was completely in the nude. The belt was covered with all types of service badges, he was singing a rude song, 'the flies crawled up the window, they crawled up two by two, they gathered in their thousands, 'cos they'd fuck all else to do.'" 'Fly I must', LA Bramley.

Keeping healthy was difficult with restricted water and a diet often lacking in fresh fruit and vegetables. Battling against horrible weeping desert sores and other skin diseases required constant effort. There was the unpleasantness of sandfly fever and other insect-borne fevers which could put you out of commission for weeks as well as painful boils. On the other hand, this could mean convalescence in the fleshpots of Alexandria or Cairo. Living under these conditions for any length of time was a strain so mental health too was threatened. It was bad enough during the war with being shot at but when men weren't able to go home as soon as they had hoped there was the added anxiety about families and wives waiting at home, and for the uncertain future. This took a great toll on troops and low morale and discontent were added to the strain.

"He was really 'sand happy' having just served three years in the desert stations of Iraq. I glanced sideways at him to see a chameleon and praying mantis sitting on the top of his sun helmet each being anchored to it by a piece of cotton and a pin. A very young Pilot Officer came down the ranks on his inspection, when he saw the insects on the corporal's helmet he said, 'By Jove!' and kept walking." Fly I Must, LA Bramley

Enduring the Sinai

Beersheba to Sodom Road in the Negev
Not even a tent
Be ever vigilant!
Waiting for tea in bed
A cuppa at last
Makeshift shelter on convoy duty.
A recovery job
Changing a wheel
Not again!
Foraging crabs