British Soldiers in Egypt 1940s

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop and the consequence of placing intelligent people in repetitive jobs and boring environments, challenges their ingenuity to find ways of making it interesting, or …. it up, and sometimes both!

For example when young Billy left school he worked in a bakery for a few hours and in keeping with tradition as the low man on the totem pole, he was given the choice assignments. One of these tasks was to carry bread loaves fresh out of the oven from the bakery cellar to the retail shop. The stairs were exceptionally steep and the burning hot loaves rolled off the tray on to his body. To compensate for this discomfort, he included a selection of the best cakes on each trip, which he hid in the toilet for later.

After squeezing cream onto cakes for a considerable period of time he was assigned to the pork pie production, which involved cutting the pie shapes out of the dough, forming them and inserting the meat. By the time all of the pastry parts were ready and lined up on the long table, he was so bored with the monotony that he welcomed the devil who advised him on the appropriate amount of meat to place in each pie. Instead of filling them with an equal amount, he varied the quantity and before long the task became less arduous and more like fun. Some of the pies received meat the size of a marble and the others with varied amounts including the lucky ones with meat stuffed to the brim. Before anyone could see his handiwork he slapped the tops on the pies, decided his career needed a change and with the pastries retrieved from the toilet, made a hasty retreat.

He considered returning to ask for his pay the following day, but decided that they may question his unconventional pie making techniques. His only regret was that he couldn’t see the expressions of the unsuspecting people biting into the pies.

So what has all this to do with the SIB, which is the Special Investigation Branch of the army? – well in Egypt in 1948 before PCs, TVs and VCRs, the ex-pie maker and his fellow conscripts were exceptionally bored with the monotony of army life in the desert and although their hobby chasing ATS girls and romancing the Stella brought some relief, the humdrum existence was extracting its toll.

One evening when Billy and three of his associates in civilian cloths exited the NAAFI in Ismailia, military police were all over the place in small groups stopping soldiers for questioning. One of the lads said, "Act suspiciously" and instead of walking towards the MPs, which was the direction back to the garrison, they swiftly crossed the road and entered an Arab bar. Periodically they would peek through the curtains and ascertain that their behaviour was achieving the desired effect, as more MPs gathered outside and the sergeant in charge with a pained expression on his face leaned around the corner straining to see into the bar.

To add to the suspense the jovial soldiers who were feeling no pain took an exorbitant amount of time drinking their beer and planning their next manoeuvre, while the MPs impatiently shifted their weight from one foot to the other outside.

When the irresponsible ones couldn’t nurse their beer any longer, two of them left by the back door and walked in different directions as the other two exited from the front. None of them got very far before the agitated MPs pounced and demanded their pay books. No words were exchanged as their identity was recorded and they were allowed to proceed.

The following day they were all summoned to the SIB office in Moascar and interviewed individually by sergeants who never mentioned the reason for the invitation and the pranksters didn’t ask, which added to the intrigue. The posture of the bemused investigators indicated serious intent as they rotated between the suspects asking questions that they couldn’t relate to. Everything was very entertaining; watching these professional individuals attempting to uncover whatever it was they thought their quarry was guilty of. However the joke had turned serious, placing them in an awkward position, unable to explain their behaviour and allow their captors to save face. The jokers had no alternative but to play out the game, because the distinguished investigators would not be amused to discover the truth. After futile questioning for a number of hours the SIB were still mystified and would probably never realize that a bunch of idle squaddies were just playing silly buggers and yanking their chain.

The words ‘suspicious behaviour’ were never mentioned and the investigators continued their search not knowing what it was they were looking for, but convinced that someone was guilty of something. They kept changing their tactics and in time their frustration became obvious and the more they laboured the funnier it became.

It was now extremely difficult for the jokers to contain their amusement, observing first hand how the 3 B’s were so effective. – (Very few soldiers are not aware of the meaning of the 3 B’s and it’s relationship with confused intelligentsia) After exhausting their repertoire of questions and acting out all the old tricks like good cop, bad cop and all the other cops, the bewildered SIB gentlemen reluctantly dismissed their prey.

However that wasn’t the end of the joviality, because the next day when everyone returned to camp for siesta the whole area was surrounded by MPs, who proceeded to search every tent thoroughly. The MP sergeant searching Billy’s tent examined the civilian shoes in his locker box and informed him that his shoe prints were found in the sand at the back of the bar tent leading to the fence. When asked if he cared to put that interesting information into prospective, the sergeant responded that the officers’ mess on the other side of the fence had been broken into. This unlikely happenstance was too coincidental to be taken seriously and Billy considered it to be retribution in response to the suspicious behaviour incident. There was no question that the pranksters were now under the magnifying glass and at the mercy of the military police. If nothing else was accomplished by the MPs, they made the point that they could also play silly buggers, which had a rather sobering effect.

Although Billy wasn’t concerned about the inference or accusation, he patiently explained the unlikelihood of his shoes being involved, considering they had never been worn and were always kept in the padlocked box. He also suggested the probability of other individuals in the garrison owning similar mass-produced shoes. While talking, he realized that there was a hollow sound to his explanation, which sometimes happens when one feels that dialogue is superfluous and the other person, really isn’t listening.

Apparently the drama was all over, because the bemused MPs and the SIB were never heard from again, leaving the idle ones to ponder the wisdom of their actions and the effects of the Stella. Although things got further out of hand than originally intended and a little serious at times, it was fun while it lasted and provided welcome comic relief.

Billy wishes to take personal exception to whoever said that you are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely!