Art Cockerill remembers….
I have been having a most enjoyable exchange with Jim Culley (44A). Commenting on reading my Lay Gently on the Coals novel that features in part a sketch of life in Arborfield during the war years, Jim wrote, ‘I really enjoyed every word of it. Talk about bringing back old memories , some of the characters from A coy days. Sgt. Salter, Sgt Major Bradbury [Zombi], and our first O.C. Captain Davies – otherwise known as Gnasher, why I never did know!’ Jim’s mention of Salter, Bradbury and Davies sent me trawling through the AOBA site where I came across the Fond memories Section and Chas Petter’s (43B) Great spy story. Coming from the same intake and in the same vein, here is my contribution of the same order.
As students of history know, Churchill gave his Sinews of Peace, (Iron Curtain Speech), at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri on March 5, 1946. This speech heralded the deplorable state of East-West politics to come. The deterioration Churchill predicted quickly came to pass so that, by 1950, Middle East Command convinced itself – or may be with the help of MI6 – that the Soviet Union would send a strike force from the Caucasian Mountains to take over the Suez Canal, which would be jolly unsporting of them.
Having no up-to-date information on area where the action was likely to take place, Military Intelligence recruited every Armenian, French, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and Hebrew-speaking officer to recce the territory, some in mufti, others in uniform, for in those days, one must recall, it was still possible to swan about the Middle East without benefit of passports or papers or travel documents of any kind, especially when crossing borders away from unmanned check points. The recruited personnel fanned out over the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere to gather information on the military state of the land: bridges, troop-landing zones, roads, rivers, lines of communication etc. This of course was in the days before satellite photography. When Military Intelligence reached the bottom of the barrel, they found me.
At the time I was garrison engineer of Tel el Kebir with three hundred and fifty fellaheen helpers, a squad of sappers, and the remnants (about twenty) of Afrika Corps POWs who preferred sticking it out with us to returning their homes in East Germany. These POWs gave me a superb post-apprenticeship training in diesel maintenance for which I shall be ever grateful. We ran the power generation and distribution system, the garrison water supply, a 20-ton ice factory, and the sewage disposal system. The fellaheen spoke no English, so one listened and learned to speak their – as it turned out – most beautiful and expressive language, sometimes called ‘kitchen Arabic’.
Crossing the Sinai by way of the Wadi Sufra the guns of the Jews and Arabs thrashing it out to the north in the vicinity of the Mitla Pass were to be clearly heard, The rain when it came was just as deadly and equally unpleasant. [It is not true that it never rains in the Sinai as proved by this image of our jeeps up to their axles in mud.]
At the end of my journey I met the Howeitat whose forebears had fought with Lawrence during the Desert Revolt of WWI. They were hospitable, charming and, in their speech, utterly incomprehensible. When they spoke and I answered they collapsed in helpless laughter. I describe their reaction metaphorically, of course, not in any literal sense.
Later, when communication improved, I heard the tale they told their companions; this was simply that, whether asked to make a statement or to answer a question, my inevitable response was ‘Shit!’ – an expletive as expressive in Arabic as in English, of course.