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6. Dry land at last for RAF man as he disembarks in Suez in the last part of remarkable war diaries

From the Derby Telegraph, Saturday 30 May 2009 www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk
THERE is a thrill in entering this gateway to the East. The Suez Canal divides the city of Suez in two parts and one has the feeling of sailing down the main street.

We hung over the side, gazing fascinated down the streets and avenues branching off the canal.

A sudden hum of interest and a ragged cheer roused me and I joined the rush to the starboard rails to see what was going on.

The sight was a hefty native taking a bath in the canal. He was standing knee deep at the edge, completely naked and making obscene gestures.

There was soon such a crowd on the rails that the ship keeled alarmingly and the bridge was forced to broadcast a sharp reprimand ordering that many should return to the port side so that we might proceed on an even keel.

There came a rumour that the RAF contingent was to be disembarked – and for once rumour was right.

Below, there was what can best be described as orderly chaos. It was chaos in appearance but we had become so used to scrambling over and round one another in that confined space that we were able to pack and arrange ourselves with remarkably little waste of time.

What a relief it was to leave that ship and set foot on land again.

We were so buoyed by relief that we did not mind a long wait by the quayside while the RAF movements organisation got creakily into motion. My experience of this organisation is such that I will always regard with amazement the air exploits of the service.

However, we managed to accomplish those marvellous raids on Germany. How the air support for ground forces on D-Day in Europe and the subsequent air war even materialised will forever remain a mystery to me, and, I am sure, to all of my comrades in the RAF who were not directly connected with flying.

The inevitable wallet and handbag sellers flocked to the barbed wire to proffer their wares.

One young native caused a mild sensation by addressing us in a broad Scottish accent.

"Ha, McGreggor," he called, "wha'd ye no buy a bonnie handbag for the wee wifie?"

His timing, like his sales talk – probably acquired from contact with a Scottish regiment stationed there – was excellent.

Eventually we were out and settled in tents while darkness fell. Some distance away, a fire blazed cheerfully.

My friends and I stumbled across the sand with our mess tins and found there a steaming copper full of bully beef stew, rich with potatoes, yam and onions.

We ladled it eagerly and squatted round the fire to eat. Of all the meals I have had, that was the most memorable and most satisfying.

We ate ravenously until the juice trickled down our chins; we picked out the vegetables with our fingers and nibbled them in ecstasy. Lovely, lovely stew. Oh, magnificent bully.

We leaned back to belch with satisfaction, as do the Arabs, I'm told. The desert was affecting us quickly. After such a stew, a cigarette and a cup of strong, sweet tea was heavenly.

Over the Suez to Cairo rail line was another canteen.

Within five minutes in this canteen we learned all about the damage in the air raid on the convoy and could have filled several notebooks on the convoy itself – its composition, strength of personnel and destinations.

But we thought nothing of it. What did interest us was that the canteen accepted only Egyptian money and none of us had any.

To leave our places in the queue would have meant starting all over again and the line had now doubled on itself. Two men, therefore, were detached as a scouting column to find the exchange market.

Just when we who were holding the places in the queue were beginning to panic, for the counter was just ahead, there came across an army sergeant who was running a double racket of crown and anchor board and currency exchange.

His rate, take it or leave it, was 80 piastres to the pound. This had to be accepted, though we had the feeling that the rate on the camp exchange rate was more like 100 to the pound.

Here, Sgt Mann's diary reaches an abrupt end, though his journey aboard the SS Strathmore continued for weeks after it.

Before the Second World War, he worked as a journalist at the Derby Telegraph and lived in the city, although details of his life immediately after his service are not fully known.

He then moved with his family to Lancaster, where he died in 1975, after which his tattered A4 diaries were taken to Australia by his daughter, Gillian.

The diaries were found years later by Sgt Mann's grandson, Julian, and have been donated to Derbyshire County Council's record office.

The entries can be viewed by appointment at the record office, in New Street, Matlock.

Source article: http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/Dry-land-RAF-man-disembarks-Suez-remarkable-war-diaries/article-1034461-detail/article.html

Return to: Charles Barton Mann's war diary

jules mann,
18 Jul 2009, 06:59