Mess Hall

The soldiers in Egypt were at the mercy of the British government to provide the necessary ships to return them to their homeland where they belonged. In the meantime they made the best of a bad situation and cheered up their lives as best they could.

One weekend the four friends decided to go into town, but realised that they didn’t have enough money, however they had plenty of blankets, but no transportation to smuggle them out of the garrison. One ingenious individual who shall remain nameless, suggested wrapping a blanket around Scouse’s body, which would be covered by his loose drape suite, which was fashionable at the time. Scouse stripped to his skivvies and the blanket was wrapped around him as tightly as possible, followed by his shirt, pants and jacket. The result was that he looked like a man with a blanket under his suite! Everyone then agreed that the guards paid little attention to British pedestrians going through the gate, so Scouse walked with one soldier either side of him and one closely in front and successfully passed through the gate undetected. The trick now was to undress Scouse in the town and transact business! Imagination has no bounds in the world of blankets and they negotiated with a street vendor who sold suitcases and could recognize the merchandise under the suit. One of the soldiers remained as collateral and the others carried a suitcase to a deserted street where Scouse disrobed and placed the blanket into the case. Returning, they collected their money and headed for Stella. - Beer that is!

This is all very nice, but what has it do with Germans, you might ask? No, it’s not misleading advertising. Believe it or not there were many Germans still in Egypt when Billy landed in 1948 and he was very surprised to see these fine specimens of Arian decent strutting about the highways and byways of the sandy terrain.

Fortunately they were no longer combative and instead were gainfully employed making and selling beautiful cigarette lighters and cases, which they produced from aluminium mess tins. These men were either captured during the war in North Africa or interned at the end of the war and were considered ex-prisoners awaiting transportation home since 1945. Ships were in short supply, but they were all gone by the end of 1948.

On one occasion some of the squaddies were invited to a German camp, which no longer exhibited objectionable security like barbed wire, for a drinking sing along, which the Germans really love. It was held under a large tent with maybe 25 non-English speaking Germans and an equal amount of non-German speaking squaddies. The proceedings started out in the usual formal way and finished a differently note.

The relationship was odd to say the least, but efforts were made on both sides to overcome the language barrier with hand signs and body language, which produced both laughter and consternation. Signs like thumbs up and thumbs down are universal and require no explanation and of course as the beer flowed, there was a total disregarded for decorum and the vertical finger and other offensive gestures became prevalent.

The hosts particularly liked Wehrmacht marching music and the guests preferred old English WW11 songs, so the two sides took it in turn with the Germans singing songs like Horst Wessel Lied and the squaddies singing classics like My old Man’s a Sergeant and the army version of Colonel Bogey. The evening entertainment reached a crescendo with both sides singing their own songs at the same time as loud as they could, trying to drown out the other side. Memorable – yes. Enjoyable - ???

Arriving at one of the mobile bakeries in the desert, Billy was alerted to the fact that the Germans had just vacated a camp next door. A corporal at the bakery asked him if he wanted any tools from a large workshop filled with equipment, which didn’t belong to anyone. "Nothing is on the official inventory list," the corporal advised as the two men drove over to the workshop, examined the booty and found almost everything necessary for repairing vehicles in addition to other equipment. "Can you make use of any of it?" the corporal inquired. "I’d like to SELL it," Billy enthused, rubbing his hands in anticipation. ‘This was it’ he thought, ‘most people dream about an opportunity like this and here it was sitting in his lap.’ The two men went into a huddle and Billy explained to the corporal that his expertise was actually in blankets, but no doubt tools could also be merchandised, so what he suggested was basically a test marketing campaign with a couple of pieces and if successful, clean out the whole workshop.

Billy went on to explain that the centres of commerce in the desert are the railroad intersections where vehicles are obliged to slow down. At these convenient locations middlemen congregate and wave currency at passing drivers as an indication of their desire to conduct business. He mentioned that he would be passing railroad crossings on his way back to the garrison and the corporal agreed to enter into an informal partnership with him as a distributor. They placed the carefully selected test samples, in the form of a petrol generator and two new carburettors on the truck and departed.

Arriving at the first RR crossing one of Bill’s regular customers jumped on the running board of the truck expecting to transact business in blankets. After allowing the middleman to view the merchandise, Billy was directed to drive off the road into the desert and after a couple of miles was beckoned to stop. He was curious to know why they were stopping where they were, because there was nothing there - no buildings, no vegetation - only sand. In the rearview mirror he noticed three Arabs approaching from behind, so he got out of the vehicle to great them. The first one was a tall imposing man in long splendid colourful flowing garments and the other two were obviously assistants wearing the traditional long white night shirts and little round hats.

These gentlemen had their own way of conducting business, which was a little different from the West and somewhat unique. At the same time as Billy was shaking hands with the imposing one, the other two removed the generator from the vehicle without saying a word. The imposing one reached into his immaculate garments and produced the largest wallet Billy had ever seen, which was at the end of a long chain. A carefully selected five-pound note was handed it him, jolting his memory of the carburettors in the toolbox, which he then produced. Again the large wallet surfaced and two pounds were dispensed - without verbiage.

Eager to arrange the disposal of the remaining contents of the workshop, but hampered by the customer’s lack of communication, Billy talked to the imposing one in a loud deliberate voice in the way some people talk to the elderly, irrespective of a hearing problem. " Bring - a - hundred - pounds - tomorrow - and - I - will - have - the - truck - loaded - with - tools," he enunciated. The imposing one nodded agreement and they departed. The whole thing was over in less than 5 minutes and anyone saying that New York is the fastest place to test market products has obviously never been to Egypt!

If you have been paying attention, you should now be asking where the three Arabs came from in the desert, considering that there were no buildings to house them, no bushes for them to hide behind, no trees for them to climb and no vehicles. They had to arrive either from the sky or from underground. It’s not difficult to imagine the imposing one on a magic carpet flying around the desert, but no floor coverings were observed. No aircraft landed and the dust from a helicopter would have sent the imposing one scurrying to the dry cleaners. They must have immerged from unimaginable underground quarters, considering their immaculate appearance. Either that or the Baskervillians without a benefactor were practicing new magic tricks in the desert.

On returning to the garrison after being humbled by the grandeur of the imposing one, Bill decided that he needed more suitable attire in keeping with his elevated position in commerce and ordered a new pair of tailor-made pants and a pair of shoes.

The guard duty that night involved sleeping in the OC’s office to protect the company safe and yes, it sounds like the fox guarding the hen house, but it’s all the truth your honor.

During the evening Billy received a phone call from the corporal in the desert informing him that one of the civilian workers reported seeing them take stuff from the workshop. The two partners planned their alibi and returned to what ever they were doing.

Early the following morning Billy’s truck was searched and he was ordered to report to the OC’s tent. Major Smith who was known affectionately as the Old Man, was a true gentleman of the old school, complete with a white mustacho and white hair and lived in a tent next to the company office surrounded by small palm trees and fruit bushes. It was exceptionally rare in those days to talk to an officer unofficially and Billy was surprised to be conversing with the Old Man in his tent. Although he had never spoken to the gentleman previously, Billy knew that he was aware of his existence, because the Old Man was an avid cricket enthusiast and Billy was on the team. "Someone reported seeing you taking stuff from a workshop in Te El Kabir," the old man stated, "what do you have to say about it?" Billy recited his prepared speech, explaining that he went over to the workshop with the corporal to find a tire pressure gauge, because he had a flat tire. They moved stuff around until they found a gauge and departed.

"Did you remove anything," asked the old man.

"Yes, I removed the gauge" Billy replied, realising that they wouldn’t hang him for stealing a gauge and hoping that the admission added credibility to his story.

"Why would you think the witness reported seeing you lift something onto the truck," asked the OC?

"I can only assume that he saw us moving things around, climbing in and out of the vehicle and misunderstood the situation. Perhaps he put two and two together and made five," Billy concluded in his best innocent manner. After leaving the tent Billy felt he had the Old Man snowed and although he wasn’t happy about misleading the amiable gentleman, self-preservation prevailed and he was in a state of sin.

Two hours later the corporal and the civilian witness arrived from the desert and the formal proceedings began. CSM Akins, who was a fine upstanding young man, marched Billy in first followed by the civilian witness who was a Cypriot and was accompanied by an interpreter, because he couldn’t speak English. The interpreter relayed the accusation and the Old Man questioned the accuser with vigour. The two Cypriots were no match for the Old Man’s cross-examination and their nervousness detracted from their credibility. The corporal’s contrived testimony was naturally supportive and the case was dismissed. The Old man’s carefully selected words to Billy before he was marched out of the office, conveyed with clarity that he was not totally convinced either way and kindly bestowed the benefit of the doubt - A true officer and a gentleman!

The fact that the equipment at the workshop wasn’t on the official inventory was never mentioned and Billy could only dream about that large wallet surfacing from the multicoloured garments with the hundred quid.

By this time in Billy’s career he had metaphorically shot himself in the foot so many times, that it’s a wonder he wasn’t permanently incapacitated.