Chapter Six

Suez

 

January 30th 1942:

Clearing Singapore, West Point and Wakefield headed due west, escorted by HMS Durban. The overcast weather covered their departure, protecting them from any roving Japanese aircraft, their destination Java, to embark more civilian evacuees and service personnel.

 

January 31st 1942 :

West Point and Wakefield anchored in Batavia Roads. Evacuees were embarked.

 

February 1st 1942:

Escorted by HMS Exeter, Encounter and HMAS Vampire, West Point and Wakefield got underway. While en-route news came over the radio that Japanese I Boats (Submarines) had been in the vicinity, sinking six ships between them. Again, overcast weather and heavy seas gave the convoy the cover they needed.

 

February 6th 1942: Colombo.

The harbour was so crowded that British Authorities could not permit Wakefield to repair her damage there. The passengers experienced much difficulty in arranging for suitable transportation ashore. British Authorities requested that the transports evacuate personnel to Bombay. West Point embarked 116 men, women and children as well as 670 troops for passage to India.

Wakefield -1

USS WAKEFIELD (AP-21)

U.S.S. West Point (AP-23) -2

USS West Point (AP-23)

War Diary. C in C Eastern Fleet. 1941-1942 (ADM 199/1185)

Friday 6th February 1942.

Wakefield, West Point and Empress Of Japan arrived Colombo with personnel from Singapore. Escorted in by Nizam.

Empress of India -1

Empress of Japan

Sunday 8th February 1942.

Operations and Movements.

West Point and Wakefield, escorted by Queen Olga, sailed from Colombo for Bombay.

Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Fleet informed Admiralty (O435Z/8) that he was no longer prepared to send large liners into Singapore area in view of increasing scale of air attack.

 

February 10th 1942: Bombay.

West Point discharged her evacuees and Albert set foot on Indian soil for the second time.

 

February 11th 1942:

Albert was posted to Base Depot. More “Doolally Tap”!

 

Mr. Ron Dodman. Royal Engineers:

When we returned to Bombay, we went back to the holding camp, but it wasn`t long before we were sailing again.

 

February 15th 1942:

While in Deolali, Albert would have learned of the fall of Singapore, suddenly Deolali must have seemed not such a bad place to be.

 

February 21st 1942:

Albert was posted to Suez. Goodbye Deolali, to sea once more.

Now here I have A mystery, I know Albert had arrived in Suez by the 25th of February 1942, going on the issue date of his Identity Certificate, signed by the then Assistant Director of Medical Services, 80 Sub Area. I do not know however on which ship Albert had completed the last leg of his epic journey. Albert had disembarked West Point for the last time in Bombay. Although West Point was bound for Suez, to embark Australian troops, who were being withdrawn from the North African front to face the Japanese in South East Asia, she did not arrive at the port, according to her record of cruises, until the 10th of March, some thirteen days later.

I will probably never discover how Albert eventually reached Suez.

Albert`s Identity Certificate -1

Albert`s Identity Certificate

And so after four long months at sea, Albert would have finally arrived in Egypt, he had travelled half way around the world, sailing over twenty six thousand miles and had set foot on three continents. Albert would have disembarked at Suez, a place he would come to know very well in the following two years, the port of Suez, where the Red Sea meets the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, was being developed to supply the Middle East Allied forces in their fight against the Axis Powers.

The Suez Canal, the principal maritime trade route between Europe and the Middle and Far East, was of enormous Strategic and economic importance, particularly as Britain`s “Main Artery” to India. It was vital that the Axis Powers were prevented from gaining control of this vital link and of the rich oil fields that lay beyond.

 

Between the Desert and the “Ditch”

……… the Suez Canal Zone. This zone runs from Port Said to Suez, a distance of about a hundred miles. It is only two hundred yards wide, yet within it contains a full-gauge railway, a first-class high road, one of the most important and most used of the worlds electric cables, sweet water conduits – and the Canal.

……… in this present time of war the Canal is under the complete control of the British Empire. The zone from end to end is one great military camp, just as it was in the last war ……… The banks are controlled by the Egyptian Camel Corps; anti-aircraft guns are spaced throughout the Canals length, and at entrance and exit a great boom is let down each night to prevent the passage of submarines. A close watch is kept for mines, and every ship making the passage is rigorously searched………

Port Said, at the northern end of the Canal, has a population of 125,000; facing it across the Canal is Port Fuad, where are the headquarters of the Canal administration. Near the middle of the Canal is Ismailia, standing on the fine road, which runs beside the “ditch” from end to end; here are situated the headquarters of the Canal Brigade of the British Army, the Naval Authorities, and the Egyptian Military Governor.

 Then at the southern end is Suez, a dirty and dilapidated Arab town of some 50,000 population, connected by a causeway with the Egyptian garden city of Port Tewfik.

 

Taken from “The War Illustrated” Vol 6, No 133, July 24 1942.

In those first few weeks of 1942, Rommel had been on the offensive, the Afrika Korps swiftly capturing Benghazi, but the Axis advance had been bought to an abrupt halt and held against the Gazala Line by the British Eighth Army. A period of quiet followed, as both sides reinforced their positions in preparation for the inevitable renewal of hostilities.

Suez, At Last -1

Suez, At Last

Albert was posted to HQ 80 Sub Area Suez . He was to serve on the staff of the Embarkation Medical Officer, based at the Sub Depot Medical Stores 13 British General Hospital Suez .

 The Medical Stores at 13 BGH had been a recent addition to the Sub Area, as I found out on one of my trips to Kew.

 

War Diary. A.D.M.S. Suez Sub Area. Quarterly Report. Fourth Quarter 1941. (WO 177/63):

Embarkation Duties.

(iv)Medical Stores. A sub-Depot Medical Stores has been opened adjacent to No.13 General Hospital. Prior to the opening of this Stores, all medical equipment and stores were removed from Suez to a place of safety to avoid the danger of loss from enemy action.

 

The 13th BGH had been selected as an embarkation hospital, it was situated on a desert site just to the north east of the Suez to Cairo road under the Ataka hills.

Living accommodation for Albert at Suez, as for the great majority of troops and service personnel in the Canal area at this time was under canvas.

Les Bird, Under Canvas At Suez -1

Les Bird, Under Canvas At Suez

Mr. Alec Adamson. RAMC:

We actually landed at Port Tewfik and no doubt that was where the Embarkation Officer would be. I think his job would include dealing with any health problems that were encountered on board incoming ships and would have to give clearance before anyone was disembarked. He would also have something to do with the health of those embarking such as our unit when we went down to the Sudan.

 

Mr. King on the role of the Embarkation Medical Officer. Mr. King also served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt.

Mr. C.N. King. RAMC:

The role of the Embarkation Medical Officer would include, replenishing medical supplies of troopships and hospital ships calling at the port, medical examination of troops in transit. Dispersal of casualties on ships arriving and supervising embarkation of casualties being evacuated to, for example, India or South Africa and dealing with any cases of infectious diseases etc.

Early Days At Suez -1

Early Days At Suez

(Albert, back row second from left)

During my research for Albert`s War, the war diaries at Kew, have provided me with a wealth of information on the conditions Albert would have experienced and the duties he would have carried out during his time in Egypt.

 

The following information is taken from, Suez Sub Area Medical Arrangements; Standing Order No. 1 issued 18th February 1942. It gives a good insight into the organisation and structure of the medical services, that Albert would have known at Suez.

War Diary. A.D.M.S., H.Q., Suez Sub Area. Medical Arrangements. Standing Order No. 1 (W0 177/63):

The general principle is that all injured, irrespective of nationality, service or non-service personnel will be given First Aid Treatment at the nearest First Aid Post, or Medical Inspection Room.

 

Medical Inspection Rooms are situated at :-

    1. El Shatt..

    2. Port Tewfik.(Reception Station)

    3. Longmore Camp. .

    4. Ataka North..

    5. Ataka Central.

    6. Ataka South

    7. Fort Agrud.

    8. 157 Transit Camp

    9. 13 General Hospital

     

First Aid Posts (Medical) are situated at:-

    1.Headquarters, Suez Sub Area.

    2.Canal Company`s Clinic. (Dr. Gautier)

    3.Quarantine Station, Pilgrims Quay, Tewfik Docks.

    4.Naval Sick Bay. Primarily for the treatment of sea-borne casualties- staffed by personnel of the Royal Navy.

     

EVACUATION:

Sea borne casualties will be disembarked at either :

    (a)Port Tewfik.

    (b)Shell Jetty.

    (c)Ataka Jetty.

Thence to No. 13 General Hospital.

Land casualties direct to No. 13 General Hospital.

 

 The Quarterly Reports of the Assistant Director of Medical Services (A.D.M.S.) give a fascinating insight into the work Albert would have undertaken as part of his daily duties, on the staff of the Embarkation Medical Officer (E.M.O.)

“The wounded being unloaded off the boats” that I recall Albert talking of.

 

A.D.M.S Suez Sub Area. Quarterly Report. First Quarter 1942.

(WO 177/63)

Embarkation Duties.

    ( i ) Embarkation :- 9 Hospital Ships embarked at Suez during the quarter, with a total of 3,906 patients.

    ( ii ) Disembarkation :- 53 Large troopships passed through Suez. Sick transfers were removed from 32 of these – a total of 464 patients.

    ( iii ) Medical Stores :- The Embarkation Sub Depot Medical Stores Suez, has supplied equipment, stationary and comforts to the following during the quarter :-

    Hospital Ships

    9

    Large Troopships

    53

    Freight ships

    58

     

     

    Total

      120

A close watch has been kept on all quays and jetties for medical stores, and instructions given for the disposal of any items, which have been found. There are no outstanding items of Medical Stores any where on the Suez Docks at the present time.

Transport. E.M.O.:-

The tug “Ivy” is being used for work in the Bay, and is suitable for the disembarkation of a moderate number of patients and for the transportation of stores. A considerable amount of time is wasted travelling between ships and shore, owing to the lack of manoeuvrability and speed, 30 to 45 minutes often being required to reach a ship in the roads. The tug is suitable for the transport of patients and bulky stores, but considerable time and expense would be saved if a smaller launch were available, in addition, for visiting ships and removing single patients, particularly at night when no launch is available. It is pointed out that at night the E.M.O. has spent many hours obtaining means of transport and has had to go out on a naval “liberty” boat from one of the ships in the bay.

The transport of walking patients from the quayside to the Hospital, baggage and medical stores, from the Medical Stores to the Quay and vice versa provides enough work for at least one 15 cwt. truck daily.

(The lack of and requests for additional transport are a recurring theme throughout the War Diaries of 80 Sub Area)

 

Personnel in the Sub Area:

These are mainly technical units, with the necessary defence troops.

Approximate daily strength :-

Imperial and Dominion Troops

  12,000

Native Labourers

15,000

Les powell shared a few of his Canal Area memories with me.

Mr. Les Powell. RAMC:

I was on the staff at El Ballah, this was the main RAMC Base Depot for the Canal Area. I remember the Railway Station at El Ballah, there was no platform at these stations, it was straight on to the sand. The station at El Ballah was just a wooden hut (like a garden shed) with one man and a red flag.

Rommels Goal, The Suez Canal -1

Rommels Goal, The Suez Canal

The RAMC camp had a cinema called “The Globe”, it was full every night.

I recall the E.M.O. at Port Tewfik. Any of our ships going through the Canal had to have a medical staff on board, who went from Port Said to Tewfik, then come off and return to Base Depot by road. They would not always be the same men, I did several of these trips. One day I was picked with three others and sent to Port Said sailing on a troop ship the “Empire Penhryn”(after the Welsh Castle) to go to an unknown destination, we were not supposed to know (it was a secret trip). It was in fact going out to Aden to bring troops out quietly. We had to stay on board this time. We sailed up the Canal to the Bitter Lake, then the refrigeration system broke down, however the ship moved on up to Tewfik for repairs. There was a large dockyard there and many English troops, the Royal Engineers, Signals, Service Corps as well as some RAMC for sick troops coming and going. This is where Albert would have been doing his job with the Embarkation Medical Officer.

They could not repair the system on the boat and some men had to come out from England, they would have had to come by sea and this was a slow process. Because of the time it would take to get the repairs done, it was decided that we medics should go to the Military Hospital at Tewfik, until we could rejoin the ship. The hospital was sited behind the docks area.

 

Port Tewfik

The Hospital was in a brick building, the men were at the back in tents. We were only supposed to be lodgers for a short while, but the R.S.M. and Sergeants put us through a rough time. The food was rotten and they gave us all the rotten jobs, we were not allowed out into Tewfik like the others, so you see we were glad to get back on board ship, at last we got some decent food .It was decided that another ship would go to Aden and we sailed back to Port Said and returned to camp.

I must say that Tewfik was quite a large place with a big docks complex. We had to go and see the E.M.O. before we went back to our ship, Albert may have been there.

 

Tommy Evans, who served with the Royal Artillery in the Western Desert, has fonder memories of Port Tewfik.

Mr. Tommy Evans. Royal Artillery:

I was in Port Tewfik early in 1942, a small nice quiet port at the Red Sea end of the Canal, where you could swim and feel clean again, for an hour or two. It seemed to be a small French and Greek enclave. I met a very nice French girl there, but I was shipped away at a moments notice, at eighty two years of age I still remember her, does this say something!

 

Mr. Alec Adamson. RAMC:

We arrived in the Gulf of Suez on the 4th of July 1942. Here, we lay overnight and had an air raid warning during the hours of darkness. We disembarked on Sunday 5th of July – 56 days after we left Scotland. We were herded from the ship into cattle wagons and started a very bumpy journey overnight to a place with a name but no town or village nearby – Quassassin – for us, just a location in the desert area between Ismailia and Tel-el-Kebir. On the way, just outside Suez, we passed large barbed wire compounds enclosing thousands of Italian prisoners of war all giving us the thumbs down. I don`t think the Harvey Smith sign had been invented at that time so we were limited in our reply to their welcome. Doubtless we found other equally effective expressions.

It seemed that our equipment, travelled in the same convoy but on another ship and we were required to unload it at Quassassin. This we did and it was stacked in an area surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, for the Egyptians were notorious thieves. The Quassassin area extended to many square miles and was laid out so that there were water towers, cookhouses, toilet blocks, canteen buildings and open-air cinemas spaced out at regular intervals in such way that one camp was almost identical to the next and it made it very difficult to find ones way back to the unit especially in the dark. We were provided with small tents as living accommodation and there were larger marquee-type tents for dining tents etc.

I fell foul, as we all did on arrival in Egypt, of some of the most virulent bugs causing what the doctors might call virulent diarrhoea, known locally as the “Gippo Tummy” and very un-medically among the troops as “the bloody shits”.

The Sweetwater Canal which ran from Ismailia through Tel-el-Kebir to Zagazig was used by the Egyptians for drinking water, washing clothes, irrigation and toilet purposes. Sweetwater was a misnomer if ever there was one. I think it was so called to differentiate it from the salty water of the Suez Canal and Bitter lakes. It was said that if one fell into the Sweetwater or indeed any Egyptian waterway one would require numerous injections to save ones life. The Sweetwater Canal was used for transporting goods including building stone, grain etc. Using the Egyptian boats known as feluccas.

 

Mr. C.N. King. RAMC:

The Sweetwater Canal was a well known feature. I believe it ran from the river Nile to supply fresh water when the canal was being built. But although the water was not salty, it was certainly not sweet, in fact it usually appeared very mucky and murky.

I was stationed at Fayid, a mile or so inland from the Great Bitter Lake, through which the Suez Canal runs, for about two and a half years beginning in about September 1942. All along that stretch of the Canal was a vast military area, the largest camp was the Infantry Training Depot (ITD) and I believe the RASC and other Corps had Depots nearby. There was a Hospital, an RAF Station and also No. 306 and 307 German POW Camps, with double barbed wire fences and raised boxes at intervals with armed guards. Each camp held about 30,000 men. At this time the Italians were “Co-belligerents” and no longer P.O.W.

Most of the year the weather was warm, hot, or very hot and I particularly remember that in a newspaper one day it was reported, that a night or so before the temperature in Cairo at midnight had been 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That must have been exceptional or it would have not been reported. We commonly slept out of doors, on the veranda of a barrack room under a mosquito net.

 

Felucca on the Sweetwater Canal  -1

Felucca on the Sweetwater Canal (Alec Adamson)

 

 

 

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