National Service 60 years ago: (1) Egypt and Libya

I started this blog on 2nd January 2017.

Sixty years ago today I left Famagusta on the troopship SS Dilwara (or was it the SS Dunera?), bound for Southampton and the end of two years’ National Service. Most of us had embarked the previous day, but a battalion of the Highland Light Infantry was due to travel with us, and it was judged better to allow them another 24 hours to recover from the effects of Hogmanay before asking them to do anything so energetic as to board a troopship.

These two vessels had been built in the days of the Indian Raj, and we officers travelled in some luxury, with a splendid team of Indian stewards to look after us. The fact that on this occasion every effort had been made to fill the ship to the gunwales, in order to cater for the additional needs of troops coming home from the Suez fiasco as well as for normal troop movements, made very little difference to our overall comfort, although it did mean I had to sleep on the floor of our very palatial cabin. It could be that there was someone else sharing the floor with me. I did not discover what conditions were like for the non-commissioned troops travelling below decks.

This blog has nothing to do with the law: indeed, in January 1957 it did not occur to me that I might like to spend my life in the service of the law for another three and a half years – but it is written in a response I have received that I should say something about my days in the Army.  At sixty years’ distance I have a few scattered memories and a handful of letters and photographs to help me. More often than not the letters tell of incidents I would otherwise have completely forgotten.

I spent my two years in the Royal Engineers. They had been recommended to our father by a colleague of his, Brigadier Dawes, who had served with them during the war. I followed my brother Peter there: he had spent most of a year with them in 1952-3 before being invalided out due to the damage to a knee he sustained during a contretemps with an assault course. Nine months ago my wife and I visited Netley Abbey, on Southampton Water, where I had visited him during his final weeks in the huge military hospital whose history went back to the days of Florence Nightingale: there is no trace of it there today.

When he was a Government Minister later on he was invited by a Sapper General to make the after-dinner speech at the Royal Engineers’ big Annual Banquet, perhaps the greatest honour the Corps ever accorded to a former acting unpaid lance-corporal. No such honour ever came my way, even though I completed my service and spent much of it doing the work of an acting unpaid Captain. [My colonel once tried to persuade the Treasury to pay me for the work I was doing (which saved them the cost of a regular Captain) but they remained unmoved].

Since January 1957 is a good place to start, I will split these memories into parts – the first two covering my 14 months as a Movement Control Officer in the Middle East, and the other(s) describing my 10 months of training – first as a sapper (at Malvern, Farnborough and Aldershot), and then as a sapper officer at Gordon Barracks, which was just outside Gillingham (in Kent).

I was commissioned at a Passing-Off Parade on 1st October 1957 at the regimental headquarters in Chatham, with the band of the Royal Marines doing the honours and the Commodore of the local Royal Naval Barracks taking the salute. While a number of my better-qualified contemporaries were posted to field engineering regiments, the authorities wisely thought I would be more useful at office-based work, and I learned that I was destined for Q Movements, MELF (Middle East Land Forces), along with Roger Boot, a friend who was commissioned at the same time. I eventually flew out to Egypt half way through November, after a few more weeks in Gillingham and a spell of pre-embarkation leave.

A word or two of history now, before I move on. India and Pakistan and Burma and Sri Lanka had all gained their independence soon after the war, but in the Middle East and Africa nothing much had changed. The large areas of land-mass marked red (for the British Empire) when I learned geography at school were still marked red. Cyprus and Malta and Aden were still Crown colonies, and the Gold Coast, the first African state to gain independence (as Ghana), did not do so until 1957. In addition, there were British military bases in Tripoli, Benghazi and the Canal Zone (in Egypt), a British general (Glubb Pasha) commanded the Jordanian Army, and there were RAF bases in Habbaniya (outside Baghdad) and Sharjah (one of the Trucial States on the Persian Gulf). King Idris of Libya, King Hussain of Jordan and King Faisal of Iraq were all strong British allies.

In Egypt King Farouk had been deposed in 1952, and Colonel Nasser had replaced General Neguib as Egypt’s ruler at the end of 1954. I was arriving in Egypt in time for the end of 75 years of British occupation – in recent years largely limited to the Suez Canal Zone and due to end in June 1956 under the terms of the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian treaty.  This had provided for the withdrawal of our troops from the Canal Zone within 20 months but granted us the right to utilise the Suez base within a seven-year period and to “reactivate” it in the event of an attack by some outside power against Egypt or other Arab states or Turkey. Although life had been quite dangerous for any British troops who strayed from the immediate confines of the base before the Treaty was signed, and although Radio Cairo tended to say uncomplimentary things about us, by the time I got there the Egyptian Government was keen that we should complete our evacuation without any further untoward incidents.

I flew out in a chartered plane from Blackbushe airport (near Camberley) to Fayid[1], with a refuelling stop at Luqa Airport in Malta. I had booked in the previous day at the enormous Goodge Street deep-shelter, which was then being used as a transit camp for troop movements, but I was allowed to spend the night at my home in Hampstead, so long as I was back at dawn to join the transport to the airport: I cannot remember if we travelled there by coach or by Army truck.   By November 1955 we had already evacuated Suez and most parts of the Canal Zone south of Fayid.  Fayid was to follow very soon, so that Army troop movements were moved to the RAF base at Abu Sueir, perhaps 30 miles west of Ismailia, to which Roger Boot was posted and where I was to join him a few months later.

As a Movement Control Officer in the Middle East my duties ranged from duties connected with the movement of freight by rail, air or sea and the movement of Army personnel by air. The first tended to involve a lot of dull jobs that anybody who was reasonably numerate and literate could have done – I got to know a lot about cargo manifests and bills of lading and so on, but I really cannot remember the details, which would be pretty boring if I could. At first I was based in a tented camp just outside Moascar (near Ismailia), which was now the Headquarters of British Troops in Egypt, as well as of Middle East Land Forces, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Hull. I think our hours of work were between 7.30 a.m. and 1.30 p.m.  We worked in offices, but all I can remember of this is the sighting of a hoopoe one day just outside our office window. For Sunday lunches in the Officers’ Mess we always had delicious curries, with condiments of every kind galore. We also  succeeded in having not one, but two large Christmas meals at the Mess over the Christmas period, quite apart from the hospitality I received from my colonel and his family.

One letter home records a visit to Ismailia (“Ish”), which was largely out of bounds to troops, where we watched the tail-end of Charlie Chaplin’s film “Limelight” in an open-air cinema with Egyptian and French sub-titles (which helped as the sound-track had largely broken down) from the balcony of the Italian Club where we had dinner. My friend John Izbicki (later to become the Education Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph) wrote a bit about those days in Moascar in his recent biography “Life Between the Lines”, which was reviewed in these terms:

“John Izbicki has an exciting story to tell. Berlin-born, he lived through the horrors of Nazi persecution and, on the day after his eighth birthday, he witnessed the Kristallnacht, and the smashing of his parents’ shop windows. On the day Germany invaded Poland and Berlin experienced its first wartime blackout, the Izbickis escaped to Holland and from there on to England. The author describes what it feels like to have been a refugee, unable to speak or understand a single word of English, and how he was persuaded by a kind policeman to change his name from Horst to John. He also leads the reader along the remarkable journey he travelled from school to university, the first of his family to enter higher education, and through his adventurous time as a commissioned army officer during two years of national service spent in Egypt and Libya.”

I knew he had been at Nottingham University but otherwise nothing about his early life. He describes how he got a job in Army Public Relations, and a roasting from General Hull himself for writing an accurate review of some Army amateur dramatics which went down like a lead balloon when published in The Egyptian Gazette, an English language paper printed in Cairo[2]. His life in Egypt was rather more enterprising than mine.

Our laundry was done by a dhobi (or dhobi wallah) to whom we sent as much as we wanted twice a week, getting it back 36 hours later, well washed and ironed, a service for which we paid one Egyptian pound a month on our mess bill. I was also assigned an admirable 16-year-old batman called Aly. Language difficulties, however, presented a bar to much conversation.

After 6-8 weeks in Moascar and a brief posting to Port Said (to which I was later to return) I then joined Roger Boot in the small Army team handling personnel movements by air to and from the RAF base in Abu Sueir. This was an air base in the desert, and to get there we went along the main road from Ismailia which went on to Tel El Kebir and Cairo, alongside the Sweet Water Canal (whose water was so infected that it was said you would need 27 different injections if you fell into it). Camels populated the landscape.

I spent about two months at Abu Sueir from 27th January onwards. Work came in fits and starts – because the charter flights from London tended to arrive at dawn it was a very early start if one was on duty, and then not much to do for the rest of the day. Our job involved determining who was to travel on each outward flight and forwarding the names to Movement Control at the destination airport, fitting in those being sent home on compassionate leave (who received preferential treatment); and seeing the passengers through the airport on their way out. This included weighing each passenger and their baggage/kitbag (we could squeeze extra people on if the total combined weight of those we had booked warranted it).

Then for incoming passengers we would greet them on arrival, ensure that any transit arrangements worked OK, and that they were all picked up from the airport. In one letter I described the life as agreeable

“because it combines a remarkable amount of responsibility with a yet more inordinate quantity of free time”.

Fortunately there were a lot of books to hand.

Sometimes things got a bit iffy, as occurred when a Brigadier from Middle East Land Forces headquarters turned up for an afternoon flight to Nicosia on which he was not booked:

“In the normal flight it is only too easy to take somebody off the list when something like this turns up, but in this case all the Army passengers consisted either of families or very high priority officers, and the RAF duty officer wasn’t prepared to take any of his people off for a brigadier who had got no air papers (although if an air commodore turned up in the same position we would have no option: liaison with the RAF gets a little tricky at times). In the end the pilot agreed to take an extra passenger slightly over the weight limit, so the day was saved.

“And in the evening we had a Hermes coming through with a lot of families, who are always a little difficult, so I was not sorry when it was all over: as a result of talking at high speed for six hours on end, I have more or less completely lost my voice.”

During my time there we made one 36-hour visit to Cairo, and on another day I got onto a free one-hour flight over the Sinai desert to Aqaba (where a British contingent of about 3,000 men, including a battalion of the Tenth Hussars, were stationed). I spent about two hours there, doing some shopping at a local crafts shop and having lunch on board a ship from Port Said, before flying back.

Our relations with the RAF officers in the Mess were always cordial, even though we were seen very much as visitors. Once a pilot took me up in his plane for a session of “circuits and bumps”, and I still remember General Hull’s visit to the Mess, at which he and his opposite number in the RAF played an after-dinner game of Holmes and Moriarty, each lying on the floor blinded and armed with a roll of newspapers. The game involved each in turn saying “Are you there, Moriarty (or Holmes, as the case might be)” and then bringing their newspapers crashing down on where they thought their opponent to be.

From time to time we encountered tragedy. I remember helping the widow of an Army officer who was returning home with her young family after her husband had been shot dead in Jordan. And on another occasion, after the RAF had taken it upon themselves to switch the passengers on one of our chartered aircraft (because their own plane had broken down on the way out) we had to cope with the dreadful news that the plane had crashed with the deaths of everyone on board, including an Army passenger we were sending home on compassionate leave. The Army personnel who had spent a very disgruntled morning complaining about having been taken off their plane changed their tune quite rapidly when they heard of the disaster.

Glubb Pasha was dismissed by the young King of Jordan on 1st March 1956: I think I remember him passing through Abu Sueir on his way back to England. The following week the station church there was formally “undedicated” by the Bishop of Egypt. It was the first (and probably the last) service of undedication I have ever attended, and it included this sad declaration:

“We remove the dedication from this altar, and do commit it to be broken, and the stones of which it is built to be buried in the precincts of this building”.

Rather more profane acts of undedication were occurring elsewhere in the Canal Zone. A REME sergeant was court-martialled for trashing the sergeants’ mess just before his camp was evacuated, and a little later the Welsh Guards’ Officers’ Mess was burnt down on their last mess night there – it was apparently judged unwise to try and court-martial all (or any of) the miscreants. Towards the end of March I was left on my own as the only Army Officer south of Port Said, banished to a tiny office at the back of a hangar (where I was unexpectedly visited one afternoon by General Hull, in search of information about some aircraft movement).  By the end of that month (when a battalion of the Grenadier Guards went home) the whole evacuation was virtually complete, with a residual token force steadily reducing to about 300 personnel based in or around Navy House, Port Said, where I was sent up to join them.

I spent five weeks there before moving on again. On my first short visit in January I think I had a room in Navy House itself, which was a very grand building overlooking the quay where the big ocean liners would moor at the entrance to the Suez Canal. On this second visit my quarters were less grand, but still very close to the quay. I was back in the world of freight movement, this time by sea, and there was a lot of loading and unloading of LSTs (landing ship, tank) of the type that were developed for amphibious operations in World War II.

Port Said was a pleasant city – I remember the horse-drawn carriages for tourists plying up and down leafy streets – and our main raison d’être was to continue the occupation in as low key a manner as possible, sending more and more equipment away from Egypt and organising the handover to the civilian contractors who were to keep the British bases safely mothballed for a few more years under the terms of the 1954 Treaty.

In the middle of April we had a very welcome visit from the 1956 Australian cricket team, captained by Ian Johnson, which was in due course to fail to retain the Ashes, thanks in a large part to Jim Laker’s bowling. Some of them (including Keith Miller) had left the boat at Suez for a quick visit to Cairo, while the others stayed on it and were entertained by us.   When Ray Lindwall was told he had last been seen wreaking havoc on English wickets, he replied, self-deprecatingly, “That must have been a long time ago”.

Other memories of this time in Port Said include the very noisy, excited scenes when any of the big liners docked; the way we steadily kept reducing our Mess bills the more and more surplus food and wine we inherited from departing units (we felt we ought to pay something, but it wasn’t very much); fishing off the quay with prawns at the end of a long bamboo rod; and catching a bad dose of sun burn during the course of a pleasant day out at the beach.  I suppose I was making myself useful in checking stores on and off the boats, but I don’t remember any of the work I was doing. Freight movement didn’t inspire me at all.

We had been very popular with the Egyptians who worked for us, and their realisation of the economic consequences of the evacuation were vividly illustrated when we were joined one day by a squad of soldiers on a brief return visit who had been nearly mobbed by cheering crowds when they irresponsibly called out “We’re back! We’re back!” as they travelled up the Canal road.

It all came to an end on 30th April, when we received a signal from General Headquarters: “Send Brooke to Tripoli soonest”. This led to a flight to Cyprus, followed next day by flying on to Idris Airport, just outside Tripoli. There we lived in Army barracks just outside the town and were taken by one-ton truck each day to our office at the far end of the harbour. If I had stayed much longer, I was planning to invest in a Vespa.

Freight movement by sea again, and again I can remember very little. I once narrowly missed being bitten by a scorpion which had infiltrated one of my slippers, and I had a reunion with one of my friends from Gillingham, who was stationed with a unit of the Royal Horse Artillery further up the coast whose officers did little but talk about horses. And I paid one visit to the huge, well-stocked US Army camp a little further outside the town than we were.

Relations with the Libyans were very friendly, and the days passed agreeably enough. For my last four days there I moved up the road to the officers’ mess of the Royal Army Medical Corps, where I spent happy hours hacking a golf-ball round the miniature golf course in the nearby pinewoods.

And then, at the end of May, a move to Cyprus, where I was to spend the rest of my two years’ service. I will describe this in the next instalment of these blogs.


[1] On page 607 of our report as DTI Inspectors into the take-over of Harrods by the Fayed Brothers, Hugh Aldous and I wrote:

“It appears that in the early 1970s Mohamed had determined to settle down with a new date of birth 27 January 1933 and a new name ‘Al Fayed’. The UAE passport which he held during the 1970s showed that his place of birth was Al-Fayedia, which seems to be a variant of the fictitious story which he adopted in the 1980s about the town of Fayed being named after his family.”

It was also claimed that his father (or grandfather) owned about 12,000 acres of land near Fayed, on which cotton was farmed. Needless to say, I had found this evidence surprising, even though the length of my sojourn in or near Fayid in November 1955 could only have been measured in minutes, as opposed to days or months.

[2] “’See this headline? Priestley’s Inspector leads Weak British Army Cast. And there’s even your bloody byeline underneath.’  When the verbal roasting was over the General brought out a bottle of Scotch: ‘All right Stand easy. What’ll you have to drink? You could probably do with a stiff one. Young man, I have to say that I like your nerve. What’s more, I tend to agree with much of what you wrote. But for pity’s sake don’t do it again.'”

I later saw him acting with the Moascar Players, after he had somehow or other made his peace with them. See Life Between the Lines by John Izbicki at pp 99-100 (Umbria Press, 2012).

3 thoughts on “National Service 60 years ago: (1) Egypt and Libya

  1. I have received this comment:

    Delighted to hear a description of the mess game which my father- in the Fleet Air Arm – fondly called “Where are you now, Moriarty”. I gathered that alcohol often played a part in these games and recovery was effected occasionally by sitting in the cockpit breathing from the oxygen cylinder as a hangover cure.


  2. Pingback: National Service 60 years ago: (2) Cyprus – Henry Brooke

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