A Wealth of Experience

By Ted Dew-Jones

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My first posting as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers was to an artisan works company in Egypt. That meant travelling on a troopship; a mode of transportation for the troops is one-quarter the way up from a slave ship to a liner. Even as a low-ranking officer, I had a small cabin to myself with a porthole.

After finding my cabin, I was ordered to inspect the ship with a party, which consisted of the captain, the senior military commander and some others, all of much superior rank. I had been designated the "ventilation officer," which meant visiting every part of the ship every day to take the temperature to ensure that as many were alive to disembark as embarked, so I needed to be able to find my way.

To do so on a 50,000-tonne ship after one rapid tour is a challenge: up ladders, down ladders, along corridors, up on deck. Did I locate every part of the ship every day? I must have because all the needed temperatures were so noted daily on the form I had to submit.

The war had been over for a year, but the national emergency was still on. Men were being called up to replace those coming home from long absences abroad.Not many complained. We were still alive and had food, whereas many were dead and others starving.

From Alexandria, I took the train to Fayid, which is half way down the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal. There to meet me was the commanding officer of the unit; a charming Scotsman named Macdonald, not much older than me, with the rank of captain. The unit consisted of Macdonald, another officer, a sergeant, a corporal, 400 German PoWs and me. It was a tented camp set in the desert with barbed wire all round and a watchtower. To my surprise, I noted the man in it was a German, which led to a memorable remark, "that's not to keep the Germans in; that's to keep the Egyptians out."

Indeed, nobody bothered if a German walked out of camp. There was nowhere for him to go. To get back to Germany, he first had to get clothes, make his way to Alexandria, somehow get on to a ship to Italy, travel the length of that country knowing that Italians hated Germans, cross the Alps and home. One man made it, and he wrote to his friends in our camp. Indeed, having one less prisoner to ship was a benefit.

The Germans were the remains of Rommel's army and the soldiers were the equivalent of our Royal Engineers. They had been viewed as honourable soldiers, as opposed to the inhumane actions of the Germans in Russia. Minimal friction took place between them and us. Fate had put us all there together and we better get on with it. Being a prisoner was terrible, but not without benefits. Not only were they fed, but were paid a tiny allowance so they could send food back home, where their families were starving. They thought the Allies were starving Germany on purpose to teach them a lesson.

Our officer's mess tent had been imaginatively modified. There was a bar along the ridge covered with cloth and that was supported at either end by rods up to a frame holding up the outer leaf of the tent so the canvas inside was taut. And a perimeter wall stood three-feet (.9 m) high. We had a fireplace, lit every evening in winter because, after dark, Egypt can get cold. It felt like a living room.

Our job was to construct married family quarters. The Germans did the work for their own officers, under our overall control. So, it was hot, but they were glad to be working. Boredom is the curse of imprisonment.

It saddens me to look back and realize the British were intending to run the Middle East, as in the past, and were so sure of their grounds that they were not only going to have an army there, but it would be secure enough for wives and children too.

The prisoners were being sent home on a priority basis, depending on Nazi associations, home dependants, etc., but in early 1948, the married family quarters were finished and the remaining prisoners were to be repatriated. That meant our unit was to be disbanded and when that happens, a company's inventory must be handed into the quartermaster in charge.

We had everything we were meant to have and more, namely, a generator. During a power cut, every unit's lights would go off but soon ours would return. What to do with it? There was a scandal brewing because the officer's yacht club had made a wharf from Bailey bridge parts. That was a very naughty thing to have happened and everybody was nervous. Luckily, Macdonald knew the quartermaster, so he went to ask him. Could we just hand it in? No way, we would have to explain where it had come from. Could we give it away? No way, we might finish up with a court marshal. What to do? Bury it!

The following day I was busy, but in the evening, I asked Macdonald how we were to go about burying the generator. Macdonald looked at me innocently and said, "What generator would that be, Ted?" I asked no more questions.

Back in civi street a month later, I started to live on five pounds a week, none found, instead of the five pounds I had been receiving all found. But I survived like the rest us, with a wealth of experience and having suffered no fighting.



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