WW II, a British focus



Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008poppy.gif - 1571 Bytes


Mail would come to us in the desert in a canvas bag delivered by truck from Cairo. We would also be given (one per man) a air mail blank which we would pocket and write at our leisure ready for next week when the mail truck would come again. Unfortunately sometimes if the truck got strafed by an enemy aircraft the mail would be late but if the truck caught fire due to this action then good bye mail. Also two more crosses would dot the desert, the driver and his mate.

While we got the air form as a free issue we did have to buy stamps to stick on them and no we did not have V mail. Airmail was pretty good in that it took about a week to get to us, but parcels would come by boat and took a lot longer. Leave was offered to service men after so many months in the desert but some could not be bothered because they had no money in their pay book to go on leave with. To clarify that, a soldier gets so much a week pay, in my case when I joined up my pay was ten shillings a week. Now lets look at that before we go any further. when I first joined up I took the advice of one of the old soldiers and asked the pay officer to send two shillings and six pence home to my mum as a regular allowance, then I would have to spend two shillings and six pence per week on cleaning gear, soap, razor blades, hair cuts, tooth paste, boot polish, cloths, pay my laundry bill, etc. That left me with five shillings to pay for cinema once a week, canteen tea and bun every morning a 10 0'clock, writing gear, stamps etc. So if at the end of the week I had a penny left I would be happy.

When I moved to Aldershot to the main regiment, I was no longer a recuit but a regular soldier and my pay increased by 3 pence per day. I went on the rifle range along with all the other blokes and when they found out I was a marksman they said put in for the marksman badge (crossed rifles) and you will get an additional 3 pence per day. Before I got chance to do this the regiment was shipped out to Palestine so I missed out on 3 pence a day for the rest of my 7 years active service. This did not seem important to us in Palestine when WW2 was declared and the Australians came to give us a hand, but soon, because the Aussie had a lot more money than us, prices sky rocketed, and we felt like the poor relation all of a sudden. Then the American soldiers got paid more than the Aussie, so when they hit the Middle East life for the Tommy soldier really turned sour, money wise.

But we if we had a quid to spare since it was useless in the desert unless you had no toilet roll then we would opt to go on leave when it was offered. On odd occasions if an officer thought one of the blokes was getting sand happy he would have him shipped to Cairo for a course of looking at by the shrink there. Maybe a month later he would come back looking fit and well and burbling all about the belly dancer in Sisters St in Cairo and the blokes having been bored to tears in the desert would suddenly erupt with "AW SHADDAP". If a bloke was lucky he could time his leave to coincide with the British fleets visit to Alexandria, sometimes during a conversation or a game of cards on a blanket laid out on the sand a bloke would throw a fag into the kitty in the middle of the blanket and mumble "ah 'eard t' fleets in Alex 'arber agi'n (I heard the fleet is in Alexandria harbour again) and if you were watching you would notice furtive glances back and forth between some of the players, and someone would venture "funny ah wus thinkin' it wer time I 'ad a leave, might put in fer it termorrer.

When the fleet was in Alex Harbour all the matlows would congregate at the fleet club and play bingo, of course in those days it was called housey housey, or tombola, and when some lucky b person got a ticket full he would shout house. Nowaday's we scream Bingo. I played there one night and I had been sipping the sherbet and somebody called house then this bloke leaned over and pointed to no 17 on my card and said "that number came out 6 numbers ago", so I missed out on a full house 95 quid (pounds) so I asked this bloke to give me a swift kick in the butt to wake me up and he did.

Cairo was a good place to go on leave but once the sun went down you kept away from the back streets where it was dark and it was a good move to always go in pairs when away from the main body. There was always a fresh coffee smell or Turkish cigarette smell and smell of fresh bread as you walked the streets in the main areas and always scruffy looking kids demanding "baksheesh" (food or money) and little walads (boys) carrying a heavy box and begging to let him shine your shoes for money. The video "Sea of Sand" depicts more or less what we used to do, except we were not motorized, we had to march and carry, we did not have the luxury of transport. You have heard old blue eyes sing "I did it my way" well we did it the hard way. Also because we did not have the luxury of holes and trenches and positions already dug for us to jump into. We had to start from scratch and dig in the hot sun all day to make these positions and we were not up against Germans, but Italians, who did more or less the same as we did, really had it rough at the beginning.

But even the Italians were organized in that they had moved into the desert and built little Forts which were organized, while we skulked in the desert roughing it like Indians raiding the wagon trains. And one does not see it mentioned too often, but The Fourth Indian Div. did give Britain it's first land victory, and one unit in that particular action that started at dawn and ended late in the afternoon was The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the cutting edge.

Cutting edge being the operative word because so much dust and sand had been thrown up by shell fire that the rifle bolts were inoperative so the Argylls fixed bayonets and advanced at the walk for about half a mile while under heavy fire from the Italian lines and as man after man fell to the sand the ranks closed and they carried on until with a final rush they fell upon the Italians and took Sidi Barrani. Mean while a lot of prisoners were collected and one said " we took off, we were not prepared to stay any longer to watch that advancing line of bayonets getting ever closer, we kept shooting and they would not fall down" so we ran anywhere, to get away as far away as possible.

2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.
Tom Barker