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Getting to Egypt and Palestine

map of palestine
Empire Windrush
Image: Steven Carter

"The huge convoy assembled off the coast of Northern Ireland and ploughed its lonely way across the vast rolling seas like a tribe of marine nomads migrating to new feeding grounds. The gales blew, the ocean heaved, the Santa Rosa dipped, rolled and shuddered and over 2,000 soldiers were sick while the American crew hosed the decks and passed disparaging remarks about our manners." 'A Private View' by WR Garrett.

During and post-war there were four ways of getting to and from the Middle East from the UK. They were all uncomfortable and could be long, difficult and dangerous.

  • the Medloc route (Mediterranean Line of Communication): by train through Europe (captured trains still had swastikas) and then by sea to Alexandria, train to Cairo and on to Haifa, usually with some time spent in varying degrees of comfort in transit in Egypt. The train journey to Haifa was particularly dangerous after the war as it was frequently attacked by terrorists.
  • by sea, usually from Southampton but could be Liverpool or perhaps Gourock, through the Mediterranean (about ten days to Haifa) though this soon had to be stopped because of U-boat activity. By 1944 troopships were again able to sail to Alexandria and Haifa using this route although there were still risks.
  • by sea via Cape Town to Port Tewfik at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal and on by rail to Haifa. This journey took months.
  • by air, although this tended to be reserved for senior officers, etc, or emergency travel.

The ships varied greatly in comfort and if you were an officer and sailed in what had been a cruise ship you might have a luxurious cabin to yourself. If the ship was a converted refrigerator vessel then you might not be so lucky. An officer might also have an excellent batman like Joe Brearley, RAF, had whose batman, Rayner, had once been valet to Sir Anthony Eden and was very upmarket. Whatever the vessel, the men were almost certainly crowded in large spaces, living cheek by jowl and learning to manage a hammock.

"A group of porpoises followed
the ship for days, jumping right out
of the water at the prow of the ship.
At one stage, we had a submarine scare,
but the sub surfaced and blew
a fountain of water into the air.
It was a whale!!" Jim Palmer

Efforts were made to keep troops occupied with training, education, games, concerts or shows depending on what talents and skills were available. There was the thrill of seeing flying fish for the first time, or dolphins, which could turn out to be torpedoes and vice-versa. If enough service women or nurses were on board then there would be dances (most likely for officers only). Some men would manage to get jobs or pursue saleable skills: Bill Greenfield earned extra cash hand-tinting photographs.

In 1940 James Glass travelled on the troop train to Marseilles and then through the Mediterranean to Haifa on the Devonshire:

"On the 30th December we were paraded on the quay and marched through the town - the gallant heroes! Crowds came out to watch and I presume, wish us good luck. On Hogmanay the Devonshire sailed a mile out into the 'roads' to let another ship dock and fill up. Hogmanay looking across the water at the bright lights of Marseilles! We set sail on 3rd January with umpteen other ships - a convoy of troopships, and even 'horse' ships - to Haifa. It was so hot through the Med that I slept on the deck, lying looking up at the stars. The approach to Haifa was beautiful: like a bright painting. The houses were pure white, with red tiles, splashes of bright blue here and there, and above all, Mount Carmel with the lighthouse, Stella Maris, on the top." A Reminiscence of War, 1939-1945, James Glass.

Ted Mold too was lucky enough to sail through the Mediterranean:

"Below decks were stripped of cabins, corridors, etc. and in their place were acres of hammocks slung between iron stanchions, pillars and what have you. It was quite a trick climbing in and out of a hammock but we soon learned. A tannoy system kept everyone informed of what or who was required and where and when at all hours. The opening words of which announcement never varied, 'D'yer hear there, d'yer hear there'. I had the misfortune to have one of the loudspeakers, and I do mean LOUDspeakers, adjacent to my hammock. Once the initial shock had passed however I grew accustomed to the routine. The queue for meals wound three or four times round the deck before you eventually reached the galley and the waiting was quite a bind but once again it became part of life." Straight from the Horsa's Mouth, Ted Mold.

During the war, with the ever-present danger of U-boats, convoys would take various routes around the Atlantic. Sometimes they would sail so far across that the coast of Nova Scotia or the lights of New York were visible. They might then go as far south as Buenos Aires before turning back towards the Cape.

two soldiers in rickshaw pulled by highly decorated zulu
Transit in Durban
Photo: Wilfrid Paine

Welcome relief for many of the troops, especially if the weather had been bad, was the kindness and hospitality offered by the South Africans in Cape Town and Durban; something still remembered today. However, the 'colour bar' was very much in operation and the experiences of white and non-white service people were somewhat different.

Journeys round the Cape would mean that the over-crowded troop ship was likely to be more than three months at sea, followed often by delay on arrival at Suez with troops having to remain aboard for several days because of the congestion. Once ashore troops were often held in transit somewhere too, perhaps for weeks, waiting for orders to move on. It was all very uncertain.

Eric French, however, sailed directly to Haifa on the renamed Empress of Scotland (previously Empress of Japan) to join the Lincolnshire Regiment at Sarafand in March 1948. The dock was crowded and there were explosions in the background. He had no idea what was going on but Haifa Arabs were fleeing by any means possible:

"I remember a Spitfire flying over the top of the masts and I wondered what I had let myself in for, to be honest."
Eric French, interview, 14 Oct 2011.


Transit in Egypt

Inevitably, on arrival for many:
"And then at last came Suez
and within a day or two, Alexandria,
'Gippy Tummy,' and hospital."
The Centuries Look Down, Hugh Braun.

For most of the troops stopping over in Egypt was their first taste of foreign travel and so many took advantage of this Government-paid trip to visit the Pyramids or dubious Cairo nightspots. It was possible to be in transit here for weeks either on the way out or home and many soldiers made the most of this time although some never bothered to leave camp at all. Tel el Kebir, on the Sweet Water canal, was one of the bases but when James Glass first went there in November 1940 it was non-existent. He approached from Gaza and had to cross the Suez Canal:

"There was no road bridge across the Suez and we were ferried across, two trucks at a time. It took forever. Tel el Kebir was a small village. We put up tents and made camp. It was the beginning of a huge camp. It eventually had roads, and filters for the canal water, etc. However, this was November 1940 and we only had water in 'Bowsers' - 2-wheeled water trailers holding about 220 gallons."

Before the end of the war he was back:

"...as before headed for El Quantara. (Canadian Chevrolet trucks 4x4). Instead of the old ferry there was now a pontoon bridge and quite quickly we reached Tel el Kebir. Great changes had been made. There were now showers, cinemas, roads, railway lines. It had expanded to become the biggest garrison in the Middle East, approximately 20 miles long and 10 miles in breadth. It had swallowed up two more villages." 'A Reminiscence of War', James Glass

Charlie Delta's Canal Zone site has a map of Tel-el-Kebir Garrison as well as a great many photos which although mostly from the early 1950s show many places familiar to Palestine troops.

Then it was on to Palestine by train

Cairo to Haifa was about 300 miles and was a regular, but after the war, dangerous, journey across to El Kantara, through Gaza and on to Haifa. It was likely to be uncomfortable, hot, overcrowded, beset by Arab youth selling 'eggsy bread', doubtful drinks, or stealing something, anything, but especially a rifle. The train passed through the Sinai and sand itself could be a hazard; in 1943 so much was blown on to the line that the train was stranded and food had to be dropped by parachute (Seen from the Wings, Joe Brearley). And there were always the terrorists ...

Sydney Smart

Sydney Smart's train journey was more eventful than he would have liked.

But Ken Brown's journey from Egypt to Palestine had a different problem.

Harry Devey's train journey was uncomfortable but otherwise uneventful; it was the first 24 hours at his unit that was lively. There would be more attacks.

On the other hand, William Garrett's train journey coming the other way, Damascus to Egypt, was quite idyllic as they steamed through Galilee, although the Haifa to Egypt section was predictably uncomfortable.

After the war troops usually went straight from the UK to Haifa by sea and then, if lucky, it would be a short trip by truck to camp. If they were unlucky like Tony Lycett, 3 Para, it was a long train journey in a very uncomfortable wagon to a tented camp in Gaza. Introduction to Palestine rarely augured well.

Troopship Dorsetshire
Medloc via Toulon
Photo: Charlie Powell
Troopship Devonshire
Photo: British Armed Forces
and National Service site
HMT Orcades
Source: Wilfrid Paine
Source: Wilfrid Paine
Windsor Castle in Table Bay
Photo: Bill Greenfield
Durban Beach
Photo: Bill Greenfield
Nieuw Amsterdam
Photo: Wilfrid Paine
Map of Suez Canal
Photo: Bill Greenfield
Arrival in Egypt: "With their kitbags balanced over their shoulders, brushing against outsized topee brims, the dense files of sweating soldiers tramped off through the dock gates, followed by a swarm of hawkers harassing their flanks." 'Winged Dagger', Roy Farran.
Haifa Bay
Photo: Charlie Powell