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YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW - Part Two
Wednesday, 28 February 1951 I am writing to you now from Section 1, Lower ’Tween deck, on His Majesty’s troopship “Empire Medway”. It is five to one in the afternoon – half an hour ago we slid out into Southampton Water at the start of our fourteen day voyage to Post Said. We boarded yesterday about 6.30pm. The accommodation is very cramped. The bunks are in three tiers. I am in a bottom bunk, with Roy Bassett-Powell above me. There are 44 bunks in one small area, with an eating table in the centre, round which we have to pack ourselves each meal time. I was one of those nominated to fetch food from the galley last night. Afterwards, we washed, made up our beds and turned in for some welcome, if not sound, sleep. Reveille was at 6 this morning. After a hurried breakfast, we had to tidy the cabin, ready for the daily inspection at 10 am.  Then we went on deck. There was a band playing cheerful marches on the dockside, to bid us farewell to Blighty. Cranes were at work loading supplies aboard. Several relatives and friends of soldiers aboard were on the quayside either waving and shouting or patiently walking up and down scanning faces in the hope of recognising someone particular on deck. The hours passed and little changed throughout the morning. It was past mid-day when the cranes were stilled, and the band began to play “Auld Lang Syne”. We all waved and sent up a cheer. The seagulls rose higher and screeched loader, as the dockers untied the ropes and threw them aboard. Slowly, the narrow strip of water between us and the dockside widened, and we cheered again. A few forlorn figures stood on the quay gazing at us in the hope of recognising their own boys. The seagulls followed as the ship drew away, encircling, dipping and gliding with us, while the shores were lost in a hazy morning mist. The voyage to Egypt had begun. In the afternoon an officer came down into our cabin to tell us that, as there were no military police aboard, the men on our deck had been detailed to act as MPs throughout the voyage. Our storeroom would be used as a cell if someone was detained, and we would be responsible for anyone held in custody. Eight armbands marked “M P” were given to our sergeant, and he was told to appoint guards who will  keep watch at certain stations on two hour shifts, day and night. Thursday, 29 th  February We entered the Bay of Biscay at 4pm. The sailing is noticeably rougher here, and I felt sick after lunch. Later I scrambled up on deck to surrender my victuals to the mercy of the sea. Friday, 30 th  February. Last night, I was on duty outside the Purser’s office for two hours. This is the entrance hall to the quarters for officers and ladies. We have around thirty military wives and some of their children aboard, and we have to see that no ratings go into that area. One of the crew was on duty with me, and he seemed to be a real old ‘salt’. He told me that he had been at sea for 35 years, and that he could not settle anywhere now on land because the sea was in his blood. During the small hours, he told of times when the sea had washed clean over the decks in Biscay, hinted at some of the smuggling practices of seamen concealing their prizes from customs officers, and spilled out the praises of his favourite place, the island of Mauritius. This evening at about 6.30,we could see the flashing light from Finisterre. This is the first glimpse of land since we left the Isle of Wight. Later on the whole skyline was illuminated by what looked like a giant rainbow laying flat across the waters. Sunday, 4 th  March We passed through the straights of Gibralter last night and missed seeing the rock. It’s been a wet day. I played chess with Roy. We are now in the Mediterranean and there is no sun to greet us, only wind and rain. But this the evening. I looked up and the sky was clear again and the stars were bright - much more vivid than they are over the garden at home. I turned in at 11.0pm, had a cup of cocoa and said goodbye to the wonderful night sky. Tuesday 6 th  March This morning we could see the mountains of Morocco from our starboard bow. It is fine and sunny, and the sea is quite lively. I am told we will be docking tomorrow at Malta, our first port of call. Some of the soldiers are disembarking there. Wednesday 7 th  March From our ship, anchored in the bay, we have a panoramic view of the harbour of Valetta. There seems to be holiday atmosphere here, despite the evident signs of fierce bombing in the war. Small boats are coming over to us, laden with fruits, trinkets and clothing for sale. The Maltese have the queerest way of rowing. They manoeuvre their boats standing up, and have their oars crossed over. The news came over the loudspeakers that shore-leave was being granted to all those who were not on ship duty. Unfortunately, we, being MPs were kept aboard organising the queues for the small boats to take people ashore, so we did not get the chance to see Malta. There were about 500 people wanting to go ashore on the launches plying to and fro. Thursday, 8 th  March We arrived at Tripoli today, and again there were little boats surrounding us selling articles, which were passed up to us in baskets tied to ropes. A large number of troops were disembarking here. Shore leave was granted between 11am and 2pm. And this time, Roy and I were among the lucky ones. As we approached the shore, the heat became more and more intense and the sunlight more blinding. Several army wagons took us into the town. I was dazzled by the brilliance of everything, the white stone buildings, the colourful robes people wore, and by the noise and the smells which surrounded me. We were taken to a British army club in the centre of the city. Across the square were the shops and bazaars. We walked over towards them and were immediately pestered by beggars and shoe-shine boys. The shop-keepers were shouting to entice us in, but did not speak English. We dissuaded them with a few words in schoolboy French. All the married women were dressed in garments which even covered their faces, leaving a little hole through which an eye could peep. There was an attractive seaside boulevard lined with palm trees, but the side streets looked as if they belonged to another age. Weird Arabian music blared from cheap radios, a line of donkeys laden with panniers was driven past by a ragged, barefoot boy, and a bearded old man with a black skull-cap and flowing robes walked by. The landing craft took us back again at about two fifteen. A roll call revealed that five men from my deck had not returned. Tripoli was a dangerous place so the matter was reported to the MPs in Tripoli and we sailed away without the missing men. We could only hope that they were safely lodged in a police cell before nightfall. At Tripoli several eastbound drafts had come on board, one of which consisted of ten Mauritians in the Royal Pioneer Corps, who had been convicted of mutiny, and were bound for the glasshouse in Port Fouad. We heard various stories about the charges, but they were imprisoned in the guardroom off our deck, and as ship’s police, we had the responsibility of guarding them. They were kept in handcuffs and we felt quite sorry for them. I only did two guard duties with them myself, and all it consisted of was standing outside the locked cell door, and, when requested, escorting them to the lavatory on the deck upstairs. As we had to release the handcuffs and put them on again afterwards, we had to call one of the other MPs to assist us. Monday, 12 th  March At about six o’clock in the evening, the harbour lights at Port Said came into view. A small boat approached us, tossing and bouncing on the waves, and a rope ladder was thrown down to enable the pilot to climb on board. It was now time for supper, and when we emerged on deck afterwards, we found we were already tied up at the quay. That night, I was on guard outside the Purser’s office, and was regailed  again by old Bill’s yarns for the first part of my stint. Then Bill had to go on patrol round the ship, and he did not return. In the end, the night steward went to look for him, and reported that he found him on his bunk, drunk as a lord. After completing my watch at 2 am I returned to my bunk for the last time. As I crossed the deck, I looked at the lights of the neighbouring ships, marvelled for a moment at the stillness of the night amidst this rowdy, cosmopolitan place, glanced at the illuminated building on the quay, which looked like a stage-set awaiting tomorrow’s performance, and climbed into my bunk. I had a restless night pondering the strange land to which I had come and the possible adventures before me. When I went on deck in the morning, the ships around were hives of activity. An army of Egyptian dockers, with baskets of coal on their heads, were constantly running to fuel the tanker opposite, like lines of busy ants. I had come to the land of the pharaohs, and for some, little had changed since biblical times.                                 --------------------------------------------------------------------
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