DIARY OF A MISFIT: Reminiscences of my War by Jeffrey Jackson
1936-1939 University College of London
Although war did not break out until three years later, I will start in October 1936, when I went to UCL with the intention of studying zoology. This was, of course, not taught in my school, but I had been interested in biology for years. However, it was all a terrible mistake. I had to do a year of intermediate-level zoology first, and it turned out to be 90% anatomy plus some genetics and embryology. The practical work was dissection, which I didn't like and couldn't do. My real interest was in animal behaviour, but ethology didn't yet exist. As a result, I switched to chemistry, thus wasting my first year. I then graduated in two years, as was normal at that time, but if I had started with chemistry, I would have graduated in 1938 and would presumably have been part way through a PhD in 1939, and therefore exempted from call-up for what was called the Militia. This was theoretically for 6 months only, but of course with the declaration of war in September, that went by the board, to the great delight of the regulars training us, who did not attempt to conceal their sadistic glee at our predicament. I hated the army and felt that I had been trapped into serving for the duration, which turned out to be 6½ years.
July 1939 Call-up: Basic Training R.A.S.C.
So, in July 1939, I had to go to Blandford, Dorset, where I found myself in an enormous tented camp supposedly learning to operate searchlights. In fact, there was time only for very basic training, not even including firing a rifle, before war was declared (I never heard Chamberlain's famous broadcast or the first false air raid warning) and I was transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps and to Third Division Supply Column at Bulford. This was rapidly moved to the Crewkerne area to await the arrival of its transport. I was in the village of Merriatt, where I slept on the floor of the church hall. Merriatt, incidentally, was pronounced locally as "Mrrt", 'r' being treated as a vowel, as in Serbo-Croat. I don't think the locals were very enthusiastic about the war; as one put it, "I was born in bloody Mrrt and I'll die in bloody Mrrt!" However, the local apples were superb, and the locals kept us well supplied. The night before we left, I was asleep in the church hall and, thinking that it was time to go, I got up and started to dress, only to realise that what I had heard was the arrival of latecomers who were getting ready for bed. As I discovered later, the unit was very mixed. Apart from Militia, there were several different kinds of reservists, including men who had served in India and peppered their speech with Indian army slang (as in "bondook" for rifle). There were also regulars, and even one volunteer who had joined up so as to stay with his lorry, which had been commandeered. I was also exposed for the first time to the rich variety of English and Scottish dialects and accents.
October 1939: Embarkation for France
We marched to Crewkerne station, and went by train to Southampton, where we boarded a ship bound for Cherbourg, arriving there after a fairly uncomfortable night crossing. I thus arrived in France early in October 1939. On the French side, we went by train via Alençon to a place called Sillé-le-Guillaume in the department of the Sarthe. Our transport had got there before us, and I was on guard over it (it was parked in the Forêt de Sillé) together with a gloomy Scot. The next day, we started to move by road to our permanent position in northern France, which turned out to be the town of Bailleul (always referred to as Balloo), near Arras. The surroundings were grim in the extreme, especially in winter. This is (or was) an area in which sugar beet is the main crop, and also one in which coal mining was the main industry (I remember going to the pit-head baths at one mine for a shower). The winter of 1939-40 was extremely cold, and water for washing, always kept in sawn-off petrol cans, was often frozen in the morning. Once installed in Bailleul, we started to do our job, namely to supply the units making up the Third Division. The local Salle des Fêtes was used for "breaking bulk", i.e. opening up cases of tins and dishing up the amounts to which the various units were entitled. I was working as an "issuer", the army job title. And yes, there were tins of plum and apple jam, just as in the First World War. Bread came from a bakery in Lille, but the system ensured that it was always a day old when it was eaten, with inevitable consequences. On one occasion only did I get sent to Lille to collect bread, and was then able to see what it tasted like when fresh. The Salle des Fêtes had, of course, to be guarded, so I became acquainted with the horrors of two hours on, four hours off. On one spell of guard duty, I got talking to a couple of extremely scruffy French soldiers. They showed me their rifles and, to my horror, the barrels were solid with grease (this would have been a serious offence in the British Army, where barrels had to be clean and lightly oiled). However, when I commented on this, they shrugged their shoulders and said that the first shot would clear them. The unit was divided into echelons, which worked on alternate days. "Days off" were usually spent digging holes, including one for a latrine. When the farmer asked me what the hole was for, all I could think of to say was "pour pisser", to which he replied in true French fashion "Mais on peut pisser partout".
Spring 1940: Metz, France - and some home leave
In the spring of 1940, I was sent with a small detachment to the village of Woippy in Lorraine, near Metz, to service a British brigade serving in the Maginot line. The rail journey took 48 hours and we travelled in the traditional French goods wagons with their famous inscription, indicating the (small) number of horses or (large) number of men that they were designed to carry. A frequent task here was unloading goods wagons containing "boulets", made of compressed coal dust. I remember going into Metz only once, to the swimming baths. I also went into Thionville for some reason, where I heard a French solder describe some politician as "un bon petit père" and another say that he was in the chars d'assaut (tanks) and that "ça avance toujours, ça ne recule jamais!" (unfortunately not borne out in practice). I went on leave to England from Woippy, passing through Paris, where I was greeted by the war cry of the Military Police "Take your hands out of your pockets!".
I spent my leave in Dover, where my mother was staying with my aunt, but somehow I managed to see my (Labour) MP, Dr. Haden-Guest, with a view to getting myself moved to somewhere where my knowledge of chemistry could be of use. This must have been in April, as Norway had been invaded, and there were rumours that soldiers on leave in England might be sent there (it did not happen). My return from leave was delayed by one day for some reason, but I eventually found myself back in Bailleul. I think that it was at this time that the unit was inspected by the divisional general, one Bernard Montgomery. I was pointed out to him as some kind of curiosity and had to pretend to be enjoying army life.
May 1940: Belgium ... retreat ... under air attacks
Some time in May, as part of a misguided attempt to get back to peacetime soldiering, we were ordered to blanco our gas-mask haversacks (I can't tell you what blanco is, but it takes the form of a greenish powder, which is applied to the webbing of which a soldier's equipment consists). However the order fell into abeyance because there were more or less continuous air raids during the night and in the morning we learned that the Germans had invaded France, Belgium (which directly concerned us, as we were not far from the Belgian frontier) and Holland. So we moved up into Belgium, ending up at a town called Hekelghem between Alost and Brussels; it is or was famous for its "sand carpets", but I never got to see one. We stayed here for a few days, but I don't remember doing any work - I seem to have spent most of the time watching the endless procession of British army convoys moving in the direction of Brussels. However, one of our drivers went off somewhere and came back after two days saying that he'd been involved in a gas attack. The wildest rumours were in circulation about German parachutists. I watched one parachute descending and heard a good deal of small arms fire, but was told afterwards that it had belonged to an RAF pilot who had not been at all pleased by his reception. There was, of course, no way of knowing whether this story was correct. I remember going round a working windmill and trying to talk to the miller in my almost non-existent Dutch. At some point it became clear that the flow of military vehicles had reversed direction and was now moving away from Brussels. My unit soon joined in the procession. After this, unfortunately, everything became very confused, and I have no idea of dates and very little about places or the order in which things happened. I know that we passed through many places, such as Ypres, well known from the First World War, and that we also spent some time in Vlamertinghe, sheltering under trees in the park of the chateau, from incessant German air raids. It was some time during this period that I was sleeping in a narrow space at the back of a lorry that was filled with crates each containing two huge New Zealand Cheddar cheeses. When it had to reverse, the back wheels went into a ditch, and I woke up just in time to see the crates about to fall on top of me. Somewhere or other I saw columns of refugees (by this time the roads were full of them) being bombed by German planes, and I also remember sleeping in a field wrapped in a ground sheet and watching what I now realise must have been Stukas dive bombing some unfortunate target. On another occasion I slept on a concrete slab, using my tin hat as a pillow. I remember being stuck in an enormous traffic jam with a German bomber moving lazily (as it seemed) overhead, when it was shot down by a British Bofors anti-aircraft gun, to my great relief. Another memory is of being called out by a corporal, together with others, and told to take my rifle with me. The old soldiers in the group were full of good advice about aiming low and holding fire - we all thought that we were going into action. In fact, we ended up at the Naafi stores in Lille, loading all sorts of goodies, such as tinned cream that we'd never seen before, into our lorries. In connection with this trip, I somehow found myself in the Lille marshalling yards. As usual, German planes were overhead most of the time, so I took cover under a railway truck, only to find that it was loaded with ammunition. In the intervals between raids, a potty little plane called a Lysander came over (I think it was used by the British Army for artillery spotting, but I can't imagine what it was doing here).
1940: Dunkirk ... on the beach
It eventually became clear that the refugees did not know which way to go. In fact, the Germans had broken through to the coast south of us and the only way out of the trap was to make for Dunkirk. Up to a certain point, we still had our lorries, but came eventually to a canal in which a lorry had been sunk so as to make a bridge, but this could only be crossed on foot. The order was given to abandon the lorries and to dump all kit except rifles. Once across the canal, the route led across a flat plain intersected with canals, one of which I unsuccessfully tried to jump. I must have come to a road, as I was given a lift on the gun carriage of a Bofors. This took me into a small coastal resort called Bray Dunes, where there was a huge sanatorium. To the south I could see enormous clouds of black smoke from burning oil storage tanks in Dunkirk. Thus, although I always say that I was at Dunkirk, I never actually saw the place until I went there in 1990 for the 50th anniversary of the evacuation (as I said, "Dunkirk at last - it's taken me 50 years to get here"). Somehow or other, I managed to get together with other people from the unit, though I don't remember any NCOs or officers. There were no ships to be seen when we arrived, which was very depressing. After it started to get dark, we and many others, gave up hope of getting away that day and moved up into the dunes for the night. Later in the evening, we could see ships far away, but there was no way of getting to them. There were German aircraft around, but they ignored us and concentrated on the ships. A paddle steamer was hit and run aground quite close to us, where it burned furiously and the explosion of the ammunition on board created an impressive firework display. I was sure that this would bring the Germans down on us, but nothing happened. The situation remained unchanged the following day - there was still no way of getting to the ships that we could see. (I now know, of course that the bulk of the troops were not evacuated from the beaches, but from the mole in Dunkirk harbour, against which ships could be drawn up alongside, thus making boarding easier.)
1940: Dunkirk to Blighty
Later in the day, a rowing boat came in, into which I piled with many others, putting my rifle down in the bottom of the boat. However, there were so many of us, that the boat was stuck in the sand and could not be floated off. It was at this point that an officer totally unknown to me stood up, pointed his pistol at me and ordered me to get out, which I did, leaving my rifle behind in the excitement, and then helping to push the boat out. I thought that that was the end, but the boat did come back. This time, I didn't even try to get in it, but helped to push it out, going up to my neck in the process. Fortunately, someone I knew then hauled me over the side. We were taken to the "Fair Breeze", which I remember as a Lowestoft drifter, but I may have got this wrong. A drifter would have a number of men as the crew, while all I remember is the master and his small son, who could have been the youngest person to take part in the evacuation. In 1990 I looked for the "Fair Breeze" among the small ships at Dunkirk, but didn't find it, which was not surprising as I later heard that it had been sunk in Dunkirk harbour, though nobody seems to know how it happened or whether there were any survivors. By the time we left the coast, it was dark, which was fortunate, as a German plane passed over us during the crossing and gave us a burst of machine-gun fire as it did so, but missed. I was too wet, cold and hungry really to care (all I remember eating were some cold haricot beans out of a tin). We did stop en route to rescue three French soldiers in a rowing boat, attempting to make their own Channel crossing. In the morning we arrived in Ramsgate to discover that we were heroes. Everything seemed to be well organised, though my lack of a rifle was greeted with some disapproval.
1940: R.A.M.C. transfer, posting to Porton Chemical Defence Experimental Station
We were soon on a train, which took us to an officer training school in Shrivenham, Wiltshire. The unit was reconstituted in Warminster, Wilts, and then moved to Graffham near Chichester to await replacements for the vehicles that had been lost in France. After that, it would be sent back to France to continue the war. However, France collapsed, so that didn't happen. When the vehicles arrived, they were brand new Army lorries, not the commandeered commercial ones with which we had gone to France in 1939. We hadn't been long in Graffham before my MP's efforts on my behalf took effect. I was transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps and posted to the Chemical Defence Experimental Station at Porton near Salisbury. Here I encountered a number of other RAMC personnel who had all had some kind of training in chemistry. I remember one in particular, Norman Aldridge, who is probably the Dr N. Aldridge who served on a number of WHO Expert Committees on pesticides, but I never managed to be in WHO at the right time to check on this. Porton was a rather sinister place - there was sometimes an unpleasant smell that some said was mustard gas. I worked in the laboratory of Dr Wright, who was involved in the testing of clothing impregnated with a substance that destroyed mustard gas: it was given the deliberately misleading name of Antiverm. This was unfortunate, as no.2 Anti-gas Laboratory Royal Engineers, which had been evacuated from France, but from Calais not Dunkirk, was preparing to go to the Middle East, and Dr Wright (transformed into Captain Wright) was to go with them to see how Antiverm stood up to the climatic conditions there. He needed an assistant, and I was the obvious choice. (I learned later that my RAMC friends who had stayed at Porton, had been discharged from the Army.) The Battle of Britain started while I was in Porton, but Salisbury Plain was not really affected, though there was a raid on the nearby Boscombe Down airfield, which was used for experimental purposes.
October 1940: R.E. transfer, a spot of leave
I was therefore transferred to the R.E. - my last transfer of the war - and told that we were to sail for Egypt in October. So we went north to Glasgow. Here, my memories become confused again I remember arriving in Glasgow from leave in the evening and being asked by a man in the street if I had anywhere to stay the night (I was billeted in a school, in fact), but I'm not sure whether this was before embarkation (there was an air-raid during the night). I also remember arriving in London early in the morning after an air-raid had just ended and crossing London on foot to find Waterloo Station out of action, so that I had to go by bus to Surbiton to get a train to Winchester, where my mother was living with my aunt, who had taken over from my cousin Fay as warden of the youth hostel there. This may have been survivor's leave after the bombing of the "Oronsay" (see below). While in Winchester, I went with my mother to collect sweet chestnuts at some woods midway between Winchester and Southampton, which, as we could hear, was being bombed.
October 1940: Sail for Egypt - just a false start!
Anyway, we sailed for Egypt in October, probably from Greenock, on the "Oronsay", to which I took an instant dislike. The morning after our departure, we found ourselves in the middle of a storm just to the west of Ireland. The order came for everyone to get out on deck, at which time a German aircraft that I didn't see dropped several bombs. None actually hit the ship, but they were close enough to damage the engines and prevent us from keeping up with the convoy, which, together with its escort, sailed on and left us to be sunk by any German aircraft or submarine that felt like doing so. However, I was so seasick that I didn't care what happened. Others must have felt the same, because not a shot was fired by anyone at the German bomber. To my surprise, nothing happened, the engines were restarted, and we sailed back up the Clyde, which I was delighted to see again. Our return also gave me the chance to reorganise my kit, as I'd packed all my tropical gear in a kit bag that had gone into the hold, where it would have been inaccessible until we arrived in Egypt.
November 1940: Survivor's leave, Sail again for Egypt (the long way round)
After survivor's leave, I went to Oswestry and thence to Liverpool, where we embarked on the Andes, a magnificent new ship that had been intended for the South American route. What a contrast with the horrible Oronsay! (I heard later that it had been sunk somewhere.) This was by now some time in November. We sailed west for the first week, so the weather was fairly unpleasant, but it improved steadily after we turned south, and eventually became warm enough for me to escape from the cramped conditions below and to sleep on deck under the stars. A couple of Cypriots had been tacked on to us, and one of them was convinced that he wasn't getting his fair share when the potatoes were being dished out, hence his anguished cry of "Everybody two bananas, me one banana!" We saw flying fishes and a whale spouting (the only time I've ever seen either). We put in at Freetown, Sierra Leone, but were not allowed ashore (my first sight of Africa - I did not set foot in Freetown until 1981). Africans came out to us in small boats and would dive for shillings. One joker wrapped a halfpenny in silver paper, on discovering which the disappointed African called out "By Jesus, you pulla my bloody leg!" After Freetown, we went on southwards, crossing the Equator and round the Cape, and calling in, unfortunately, at Durban, (Cape Town would have been far more interesting - I still haven't got there). It was amazing to see a city that wasn't blacked out. I don't remember much, except enormous jellyfish in the harbour, a tropical storm, and being baffled by finding that there were seats on buses that I couldn't sit in because they were for blacks only. I had never heard of apartheid. After Durban, we sailed northwards, celebrating Christmas and New Year at sea. We passed just as night was falling through the straits at the entrance to the Red Sea, with sinister and completely barren mountains on the African side. There was no sign of life, and no attempt by the Italians to stop us. Finally we reached Suez and sailed on to Port Said through the Canal. Here we entrained for Cairo, and were seen off by a crowd of Egyptians shouting obscenities and smiling broadly - they'd obviously been taught them by soldiers as English greetings.
Early 1941: Ismailia, Egypt - working in a laboratory
I didn't see anything of Cairo on this occasion, but what was peculiar was that, although Egypt was being used as a base by British forces, it wasn't actually at war with Germany. From Cairo, we went to the big Army base at Moascar, near Ismailia, on the Canal. Our laboratory was in a two-storey building. Nothing much was happening in the Canal Zone, except that Italian (presumably) aircraft occasionally tried to drop mines in the Canal. This did affect me, because Phil Cole, a friend of mine, had somehow acquired a girl-friend in Haifa (she was Adina Gwirtzman, a cellist and an expert on the Arabic pagan, i.e. pre- Muslim, poets) and decided to go and see her. To that end, he bought an old wreck of a car, which he christened Yimkin (Egyptian Arabic for "perhaps"). He needed a couple of people to go with him so Tom Smith, who ran the unit office, and I joined him. We started in the evening, but there had been an air raid so the ferry across the Canal was not running and would not until the Canal had been swept for mines. I passed a very uncomfortable night somewhere. In the morning, Yimkin wouldn't start, but Phil somehow managed to get a gang of Egyptians to give us a push. He had discovered that, further up the Canal, there was a pontoon bridge, but this could be used only by military vehicles. He didn't let this stop him, though, and waving aside the Egyptian policeman who tried to stop us, we crossed over into Sinai. There would be trouble on the way back, as we didn't have the necessary stamp on our documents. After that, the crossing of the desert and the journey up to Jerusalem were trouble-free. After spending the night in Jerusalem, we drove down to Tel Aviv, where Yimkin broke down so seriously that it had to be left in a garage there while we returned by train.
1941: Under air attack in Moascar, Egypt
For some reason, the Germans then decided to make things unpleasant for us. I was on guard duty in the lab one night when the siren went. As usual, nobody moved until we heard a bomb being dropped on the nearby RAF airfield. Everyone immediately rushed out and into a curious structure whose purpose I never knew. It was made of concrete, but was only partially below ground level, the top part sticking out above ground level and having openings in it. Still, it was better than nothing. A stick of bombs was dropped, each bomb coming closer to us. The flash from the explosion of the last one lit up the inside of our shelter, and someone commented that, if he found a bloody great hole near it when he went outside, he would kneel down and kiss the concrete. After it was over, I found a piece of shrapnel on my pillow. There were then raids more or less every night so going into the slit trenches as darkness fell became a regular proceeding. In the end, with practice, I learned to tell from the sound that the bombs made whether they were approaching or passing overhead. To begin with, there was absolutely no defence, but antiaircraft guns were gradually brought in. Needless to say, the entire Egyptian workforce disappeared after the first raid. Work became increasingly difficult as plaster and ceiling fans fell after every raid, and the building became surrounded by unexploded bombs. To avoid the raids, we left Moascar every evening and went to tents some way away, near the Canal, from where we could watch the firework display over Moascar. This was possible only because Phil Cole was willing to stay in the lab building as guard every night. I remember the classic comment by Sergeant Morphy one evening: "Wish I were 'ome. Wouldn't be sitting on the doorstep eating a blasted sandwich."
... Moved to Beni Yusef near Cairo
In the end, it must have dawned on someone in authority that we were serving no purpose by staying in Moascar under these conditions, and we were moved to Cairo, or rather to Beni Yusef, an Army camp just where the green of the delta met the sand of the Western Desert. Here we lived in holes in the sand; these were rectangular, and covered by tents. However, as an RE unit, we had craftsmen who could do anything. Very soon, the floors were concreted over, using cement stolen from the RE stores, and beds made with stolen timber and signal wire. We had our own generator, so we had light at night. However, we suffered from a plague of fleas, and there were also mole crickets, harmless but rather alarming to look at. The other inhabitants of Beni Yusef included Italian POWs and, at times, the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats), who had just received American Grant tanks, but I didn't think much of them because the gun was at the side, so that the whole tank had to be turned to aim it.
I started learning Italian, helped by Sydney Blattner, who was born and educated in Alexandria, at the English school, Victoria College, but somehow had British nationality. He was always very keen to get into a unit fighting the Germans, but never succeeded, unlike his brother who fought in the Dodecanese. Sydney spoke not only Italian but also Arabic, which made him extremely useful. Thanks to him I visited the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, the City of the Dead, which was then completely uninhabited (I believe that this is no longer true), and most amazing of all, the Monastery of the Albanian Dervishes in the Mokkatam Hills, with its kitchen full of enormous pots and pans, and a long tunnel in the rock leading to the tomb of the founder.
... on leave in Jerusalem
While stationed in Beni Yusef, I went on leave to Jerusalem. This involved taking a train from Cairo to a place called El Kantara on the African side of the Suez Canal. It was then necessary to cross the Canal by boat to the Asian side to catch the train to Jerusalem. It was because of this that I found myself in a small boat together with two New Zealand soldiers and the New Zealand General Freyberg, who had been in command of the British and Commonwealth forces on Crete. I was amazed to hear the soldiers talking to the General as man to man, as such a thing would have been impossible in the British Army. It was wonderful, after the long journey across Sinai, to see hills again instead of the uniform flatness of Egypt. I loved Jerusalem and was fascinated, in particular, by the Old City, although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was too commercialised. At weekends I would escape from the squalid conditions of Beni Yusef to Cairo and the civilisation of "Music for All". This was started (as I now know) by Lady Russell Pasha, the wife of the Chief of the Cairo Police; it provided concerts of recorded music for the forces in an old cinema. Apart from the music, there was also a good restaurant (it was here that I saw an Egyptian waiter lift a bottle of Worcester sauce to his lips and down a large dollop). I also went to chamber music concerts at the American University. In addition, our C.O., Major Leonard Kent (I did not discover what a great man he was until I saw his obituary in The Times), organized a trip to the step pyramid at Saqqarah and to Memphis.
1942: Leave in Jerusalem ... a spell of illness in the Jordan Valley
The situation in the Western Desert was changing, and in 1942 Rommel and the Afrika Corps had taken Tobruk and were advancing towards Alexandria. To my surprise, in spite of this, a group of us were allowed to go to Palestine on leave (for us, Palestine was like paradise compared with Egypt, both because of the scenery and the large European population; Jerusalem, of course,, was an experience in itself, especially the Old City). While we were there, we heard rumours that the unit was moving, but no instructions to stay put came, so we set off on the train back to Cairo. Somewhere in the Sinai Desert at one of the stations where trains could pass each other, it being a single track line, we met a train going the other way and saw people from our unit on it. So all of us with one exception, switched over, which seemed the logical thing to do. However, for some reason, we were not greeted with enthusiasm. The train went on to Haifa, where we changed onto the Hejaz railway (the one that Lawrence kept on blowing up - the carriages were still marked CFH), and finally ended up at Jisr al-Majami, a camp of the Transjordan Frontier Force south of Tiberias in the Jordan Valley and therefore extremely hot. It wasn't a nice place - there were biting flies in the daytime and mosquitoes at night, and large spider-like (but harmless) creatures scuttled across the floor. It was here that I was taken ill with bacillary dysentery and removed by ambulance to a hospital at Nazareth. We were still in the pre-sulphonamide, pre-antibiotic era, so there was no effective treatment, and I therefore had a pretty unpleasant time. However, I eventually recovered, and returned to Jisr al-Majami.
... Tel Aviv
The unit then moved to Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, a strange choice since it was inhabited by orthodox Jews who, I'm sure, didn't welcome the presence of the riotous and drunken soldiery. In fact, payday had to be changed from Friday to Thursday to avoid drunken soldiers disturbing the beginning of the Sabbath. The lab was set up in a disused factory next door to a wood distillery. We were put in tents in an adjacent field, which worried me because I knew from reading "Wildlife in Palestine" by Bodenheimer (which I still have) that winters in Palestine can be very wet. I told Major Kent about this, but he was sure that the water would run off. In fact there were two severe storms (I was in Tel Aviv both times) and the camp was flooded twice. After this, we moved into the factory building.
... Nasty Work in the Laboratory
Although Captain (Dr) Wright was still with us, I was just doing ordinary lab work - measuring the viscosity and ash content of samples of mustard gas and BBC (tear gas) taken from shells stored in the Middle East - and on one occasion was surprised to find that the BBC sample I was ashing, was actually mustard gas. There was a mysterious drum that had been in store for so long that the markings on it had worn off, so Phil Cole took a sample and declared it to be dirty water. I was then asked to take another sample, some of which ran over my fingers, which started to sting. Alarmed, I shoved my hand under the cold-water tap. Another friend, Jack Slade, then analysed the sample while I watched him with increasing horror as I realised that it was going to turn out to be DA (diphenylchlorarsine), which not only causes blisters but also poisons you at the same time. Fortunately, washing removed all of it, except under one fingernail, which became extremely painful. There was more excitement one day when a cylinder of liquid hydrogen cyanide stored in the office (!) polymerised explosively and went up through the roof near where Harry Kersh, the unit photographer, was sleeping after having been on guard duty. We then opened up all the other cylinders by rifle fire, but they contained only a brown powder.
It was here that I became a kind of education officer, going to the large camp at Sarafand for books and records. At my suggestion, Major Kent allowed anyone not on duty to hitch a ride on unit transport if it was going anywhere interesting. In this way, I got to Amman on a truck carrying a large dustbin. The aim was to collect soil from Amman airfield, since it had unusual properties, being able to destroy lewisite.
Some of the natives were friendly, and I knew people both in the village and in Tel Aviv. It was probably thanks to the latter that I got to hear a Schoenberg quartet on the roof of a house in Tel Aviv. They also conscripted me as a guide for the half-blind German writer Arnold Zweig, now completely forgotten, when he came to Tel Aviv from his home in Haifa to give a lecture on the German novel (he started it, of course, though he did give some credit to Theodore Fontane). Two of my friends in the unit and I also went on leave to the Lebanon, but the weather was bad, so we took a taxi to Damascus, which was protected by the mountains and therefore dry and sunny. I found it a fascinating place - I hadn't realised that it is an oasis.
... Writing Anti-Army Articles!
I'm afraid that I annoyed Major Kent by writing anti-Army articles for the unit magazine, the Bullfighter, which was edited by Bob Tongue, a fitter from the Black Country. We now had a doctor, Major Curwen, with us to deal with the medical aspects of the trials being carried out on volunteers. He was related to a member of the Crazy Gang, and with the aid of our composer, Bill Churchill, and poet, Noel Wilkinson, put on two excellent shows, to which selected locals were invited. The Italian capitulation was followed by a riotous night in which Tommy Tucker, our cockney cook, broke his arm, but didn't realise this until the following morning - he was too drunk to notice.
June 1944 .. Back to Blighty at last,; Porton Labs. testing German war gases
In June 1944, we heard about the Normandy landings on the radio. Some time after this, what was called the Python scheme started, under which soldiers who had served more than a certain length of time overseas were returned to the UK. I just qualified for this, as the time that I spent in England in 1940 was short enough for my service to be regarded as continuous from October 1939. Unfortunately, I then had to leave the unit and go back to the RE base depot at Moascar, which meant horrible things like guard duty, in which I was in charge of the guard because by then I had reached the exalted rank of corporal (I would no doubt have risen higher, had I not been so anti-Army). However, I at last left Moascar and sailed from Port Said on the "Indrapoera", a fairly small and cramped Dutch ship. It was like being on a cruise - as far as Gibraltar. Once in the Bay of Biscay, however, the weather deteriorated, and we also acquired an escort of an aircraft carrier and a number of corvettes as there were submarines about, as depth charges were exploded in the vicinity (the whole ship reverberated when they went off - not a nice feeling). We arrived safely in the Mersey and disembarked in Liverpool. After leave, I had to go to RE base in Halifax, where they started trying to retrain people who hadn't done any drill for years. Fortunately, I was soon recalled to Porton, where I worked in Dr Howarth Williams' lab analysing samples taken from captured German equipment. It was here that samples of German war gases arrived after Allied troops had entered Germany and captured stocks of gas shells. Howarth Williams analysed them and was startled to find that they contained phosphorus, since none of our gases did. This meant that, had they been used, we would have had no defence against them. In addition, the physiology lab reported that they were so toxic that even minute quantities on the skin could kill. After this, Howarth Williams treated them with far greater respect.
1945: A spot of culture ... could I retrain as a teacher?
It was also during this period in Porton that I was sent on two courses run by the Army Education Corps. The first was in Bristol and was intended to turn me into a teacher of French and German (in two weeks). The tutor was a certain Eric Hobsbawm, who went on to become well known as a Marxist historian. While in Bristol, I visited my aunt, who was then living there, and was able to listen on the radio to the first performance of "Peter Grimes", by Benjamin Britten (7 June 1945). The second course was supposed to train me as a teacher of science. It was held in Preston, not far from Bolton, the home of my friend Phil Cole, and was also for two weeks, so, on the Sunday, I decided to go to Bolton and try and find him. I had the address, in Greenmount Lane, but I had never been to Bolton. I got as far as a place called Horwich, where I found a tram that was going to Bolton. As it trundled along, I started to get the feeling that I was getting closer to where I wanted to go. This feeling grew stronger and stronger, until in the end I asked someone in the tram if I was anywhere near Greenmount Lane. "It's the next stop" was the reply. I have no explanation for this.
1945-1946: V.E. Day and Demobilization
Finally V.E. day arrived, but I didn't get excited because I assumed that I would be sent to Burma. Instead, at the beginning of 1946, I was sent back to Halifax for demobilization.
Jeffrey Jackson was born in Wales in 1918;