Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
LIDDA AIRPORT, PALESTINE, 1939
I was on guard duty at Lidda air strip, at the four corners of the air field were concrete pill boxes with a small entrance door and four rifle slits round the circular pill box situated north, south east and west. The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders were now baby sitting all government properties. Any one without a pass did not get in and for that matter any one without a pass did not get out, we had orders not to take chances and if a sentry challenged and got no reply he had orders to shoot. The pill box was locked on the inside when blokes were in there on duty watching for any hostile Arabs in the area that might take it into their heads to cause mischief to the property or any aircraft parked around. There was a telephone on the wall so if we did see any thing untoward we could ring the main guard room. There were four of us maning this box and while two would watch the other two could relax. This stint lasted for two hours, we would then be relieved to do what we wished within the confines of the airstrip for the next four hours. So it was two on and four off until the next day when a new set of guards would take over. We could then rejoin the main unit outside the airstrip and get on with living so to speak.
Of course there were other places to guard like the nuns quarters at Stella Maris, this would cause ribald banter amongst the more coarse of humour. About two in the morning I was slouching on the concrete seat, it was cool and out of the corner of my eye I saw movement at one of the slits in the wall and with my foot I nudged my nearest mate and he looked to where I was pointing and almost fell over. Crawling down the wall of the inside of our pillbox was the biggest centipede I had ever seen. One of our bloke's had his back to it and was engrossed in a book, the centipede was homing in on his body heat and my mate said " it's an anaconda with legs". I reckoned it was about fifteen inches long and as thick as my thumb any way it got stomped before it could hide. Later we learned that one of our blokes fresh out from England had been on guard and he had not tucked his trouser bottoms into his socks. The out come of this was he leaned against a rotten gate post and probably disturbed a centipede because having been roused, it detected his body heat because of the cool night air and it decided to move house to warmer climes. It crawled up the inside of his trouser leg and when it found a warm spot at the top of his leg it curled round the obvious. When the owner suddenly felt movement that was different to normal he grabbed and pulled and wound up in hospital with what looked like two smuggled footballs. Later he told us it was so painful he was very grateful to the nurses who pandered to his every whim, well nearly every whim. When he was on guard next time we noticed he was wearing canvas gaiters over his boots and trouser bottoms.
We usually finished up in the canteen and on this occasion a bloke called Brown and I were sipping a shandy while at the bar, an officer was sipping what looked like gin and tonic when the door opened and this young bloke with handle bar moustache and flying jacket came in. Spotting the other officer he piped up with "oh, hello sir, what are you having". The bored reply was "hello Rodney, I'll have a horses neck", to which the first bloke said "jolly good, and I'll have the same" leering at the bloke behind the bar. "Yes sir" said the bar man and he busied himself with bottles and gave us a sideways look and his eyes went up to heaven and one could almost hear his silent prayer of "God save us", as we took off trying to keep a straight face.
The control tower always had a guard mounted, and since the officers bar was below the control tower it was below ground level, so to get to it one had to go down some steps. At the bottom of these steps was another guard, and any one coming down the steps would be greeted by the sentry with "Halt, who goes there" and 'who' would have to answer the challenge with "friend". The sentry would spout "give the password" and the password would be spoken then the sentry would say "advance friend", and the visitor advanced so the sentry could indeed see who it was. Only when the sentry was happy with the result of his inquiries would he remove the muzzle of the .303 Lee Enfield from the face of the visitor.
On one occasion the c.o. who unfortunately was wounded in the legs in WWI and walked a bit awkward decided to pay a visit to the officers canteen and walking down the stairs and across to the bar, he turned on the sentry and snapped "why didn't you challenge me, what is the point in having a sentry here if any Usef, Abdul or Mustaffa and can just stroll in, I could have been an Arab with a bomb". The sentry as quick as a flash replied "oh, I knew it was you sir", and the c.o. asked "Oh, and how may I ask did you know it was me when there is no light on the stairs to see any one". "Well sir" replied the unhappy sentry "I could tell by the sound of your walk". "Any one could copy my walk" said the c.o. and then the sentry put his foot in it "yea, well he'd have to have both legs broke first," and he got seven days jankers for insubordination.
On another occasion we had sentry trouble at the main gate when one of our blokes came stumbling out of the dark. He had been in the canteen all evening and now he was ready for bed but had lost his way, and seeing the guardroom light he made for it "Halt who goes there" barked the sentry. "Och it's ony me, dinny bother", "Password" barked the sentry, "ah dinna ken wat the f—n' passwerd es, am away tae mah beeeed. "Halt or I fire" wabled the sentry now a bit uncertain. "Ahm Whullie McLeash frae hut 5 an ahm away tae mah f—n' beeeed y'naw wat ah mean ah wan' tae sleep an f—n' shoot if et wull mek yu happy", and with that he collapsed in a heap so the guard was called out to carry him into the guard room. The next day he remembered nothing of the encounter and he was not charged. Must have been a very understanding sergeant of the guard.
It is a tradition in the British army that on Christmas day the N.C.O's act as waiters to all the men at Christmas dinner. So at Jenin camp in Palestine we were all sitting down waiting to be served in the main dining hall. Soon the usual "oh why are we waiting" song struck up and since some had been at the sherbet a bit early, the festive trough time was getting a bit out of hand and to light the fuse so to speak who should wander through the door but our c.o. on his damaged legs. Now among our motley lot we had a bloke who had not long been out of the glass house and it was our c.o. who had sent him there in the first place so it was no great surprise to us when all of a sudden the ex glass house walla jumped up with a bottle clutched by its top and wielding it like a club he raced toward our beloved c.o. with a view to smashing in his head. However a gaggle of sergeants forestalled his murder attempt and he was swiftly transported to the guard room and I overheard a remark made by one of these stalwarts to the effect that his bed in the glass house would still be warm.
I had taken numerous snapshots of the local terrain with a view to sending them home to let people at home know what it was like here in the holy land. I had no doubt it would dispel a lot of myths because I never came across Ali Baba or any of his forty mates. Nor did we come across any caves full to over flowing with gold and jewels and urns full of gold coins. We did stand in front of one or two big boulders and chant "open sesame", but nothing ever happened so we just didn't bother any more. I came to the conclusion that they were just a bunch of fairy tales. However one day I wandered over to the building that was housing the dhobi walla (the Arab who did our laundry) and another Arab who got our photos done in Haifa, among his other enterprises. The week previous I had put a roll of film in to this bloke and I hoped it would be now ready for me to pick up. I presented the little card and sure enough the walad (boy) brought my pics to me and I paid for them with paper money (10 piaster note) and since my pics cost 250 mils, I should have had 750 mils change but the boy returned and handed me the pics and when I enquired about my change he went behind the screen. The boss man came out and assured me I had paid the exact amount in silver coin. No amount of arguing would move him so I gathered I had been ripped off. I thought now here is Ali so his forty mates can't be too far away, since it was obvious I was getting nowhere fast, I left the thief with a smug grin on his face. This soon altered to a whining "I made a mistake effendi (sir)" when confronted by our R.S.M (regimental sergeant major) by the way the peace time number of a regiment is usually 1001 men strong, no the odd man is not the padre, he is in fact the R.S.M. Any way the R.S.M. left our would be "rip off artist" with the knowledge that should this happen again, he would leave the camp under a cloud, more than likely made up of fists and boots and the odd baseball bat thrown in. We encountered no more hassles from that direction.
The Christmas dinner was a roaring success, the only fly in the ointment was that some of the blokes made life unbearable for the N.C.O's serving dinner and we knew that tomorrow we would have to foot the bill, foot being the operative word. They would march us rather than let us use transport just to get even, so we did not look with favour on forth coming stunts, (operations). Also we got a few more kit inspections but it died a natural death and we soon got back to normal. We had a look round a Lysander and a De-Haviland Dragon and one or two others that were lined up but apart from putting a centipede in a jam jar along side a scorpion and some blokes having a bet on the out come there was nothing earth shattering to talk about.
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.