Desert Saga

By 23rd March 2009No Comments

‘Oi you.’

Naively I looked up and caught the corporal’s eye

‘Yes you. Come ‘ear.’

Although I had been in the army only a matter of a few months, I had realised that I was a non-entity, just a number. In addition I had also discovered that I had the sort of face that corporal’s took an instant dislike too, this one in particular. I ambled over to him, best to look keen, ‘Yes Corporal,’ I said.

I’ve got a little job for you,’ he smirked maliciously.

It was 1952, I was a new recruit to the Signal Platoon of the Royal Berkshire Regiment; which was serving in the Suez Canal region of Egypt. At the time in question we were on a Brigade exercise in the Sinai Desert, we had bivouacked over night somewhere out in the vast sandy wastelands. Other ranks as we were called, were never privy to information as to the why or wherefore of a situation, not even corporal’s. ‘Yes Corporal,’ I repeated, not too eagerly though, don’t overdo the keenness.

‘Yes, it’s an important job,’ he said knowingly, to give the impression that he was in fact privy to inside information. ‘I want you to go over to D. Company and collect a special battery.’

‘What sort of special battery?’ I asked. Well, I thought I ought to clarify that, I mean, how does one know what a special battery looks like.

‘It’s a special battery for a special type of wireless set to contact a spotter plane that will be coming over later, see?’

Well, that explained everything precisely, didn’t it? However, being a somewhat dumb recruit, I thought I should try and illicit just a little more information. ’Yes, but how do I tell a special battery from an ordinary one?’

‘Gawd, it’s obvious isn’t it? It will look different, won’t it?

Silly me, now why didn’t I think of that. ‘Yes I suppose so,’ I muttered, not very convincingly.

My obvious lack of simple comprehension had the desired affect, he felt a pang of sorrow for this poor benighted rookie, a minute touch of compassion entered his tone of voice. ‘Look, when you get there, just tell them you’ve come for the special battery. They’ll know what you want, because they’ve got it there, won’t they?’ Adroitly avoiding the fact that he had no more idea than I did.

Now I have to confess that it took a little time for the crystal clear clarity of his logic to penetrate my thick skull, but then I wasn’t a corporal. ‘Yeah, well they should I suppose,’ I replied hopefully.

‘O.K. Right off you go then and don’t hang about. Without the battery we can’t contact the spotter plane, so the whole things depends on you.’

Now there was a sobering thought, a whole Brigade depending on little yours truly.
‘Right then Corporal, I’ll be off.’ However, another thought did cross my mind, ‘ Err, where is D. Company?’

Instantly his belligerent tone returned, ’ That’s D. Company over there,’ he snapped, pointing north to a spot out in the desert where I could make out signs of activity.

My destination appeared to be about half a mile away, however, we had been warned that the lack of landmarks and heat haze can distort distances. Prudently I checked my water bottle before setting off.

The NCO saw my precautions, ‘Gawd, you’re only going a few hundred yards. You’re not exactly Moses leading the tribes out of Egypt,’ he exclaimed, demonstrating how well read he was.

‘Be prepared,’ I retorted, letting him know that as an ex scout I had learnt my craft. Shouldering my 303 Lee Enfield rifle, I trudged off into the desert. The route between the dunes was on hard packed sand; rather more of a shale like surface and progress was fairly easy. The sun was still climbing up into the heavens so the temperature was in the pleasant high seventies.

My estimate of about half a mile proved to somewhat short, it was nearer three quarters, yet not much more than a stroll. Although by the time I had reached my destination, the temperature had gone up a couple of degrees. Making my way to Company HQ. I tentatively approached a sergeant and explained my mission.

‘It’s not here lad,’ he said rather kindly, ‘I think you’ll find it’s over at Support Company.’

What had started out as I thought, would be a welcome break from routine, was beginning to turn into a frustrating excursion. ‘Where’s Support Company then Sarge?’

He pointed to the south east, ‘That’s them there, look.’

I looked; yes I could see them through the now shimmering heat haze about a quarter of a mile to the left of where I had set out from. ‘Thanks a bunch,’ I said through gritted teeth.

He glanced up at the sun now appreciably higher in the heavens, ‘Nice day for a stroll lad,’ he smiled.

Yeah right, I said under my breath, a bloody good day indeed. Taking a swig from my water bottle, I trudged off again into the sandy wastes. The terrain had changed some what under foot as I neared my revised destination, softer sand. I entered the campsite through a gap between the dunes. I was feeling the heat by now, not perspiring much, desert heat is rather dry, yet still energy sapping and I was glad I had arrived.

‘Where’s your HQ. mate?’ I asked a fellow soldier cleaning his rifle.

‘Over there in that tent,’ he indicated with a nod.

‘Thanks.’ Then a sudden thought struck me, what an idiot I was not to have thought of it before. Just how big was this bloody battery I had been sent to collect, after all I was the poor sod who had to carry the thing back in the heat of the day. However, life suddenly took a turn for the better, I was given a welcome mug of tea and informed that the battery was indeed there. When I saw it I must confess it didn’t look all that special to me, quite ordinary in fact. However, lifting it, confirmed that it was of a reasonable weight, and even better it had a sling to carry it by.

Suitably refreshed, I thought I ought to take my leave, I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of my friendly corporal again. Then I had a brainwave which I was sure would impress him as well as saving me considerable time and effort. Let me explain, my journey to date had taken the form of two sides of a triangle. Up the left side to the top and then back down the right side to the bottom again. Well, thanks to my brilliant analytical mind I could reduce the journey by over half by returning to my start point along the base of the triangle.

I couldn’t actually see HQ. Company, my required destination, yet that was no problem to a clever sod like me, was it? I worked out that if I took about 600 paces along the bottom of the dune facing me, I wouldn’t be far out. All I would have to do then was climb up onto the dune and I should be able to see my goal, piece of cake! I still had about half of my water left and with not so far to go now, I set out from Support Company in good spirits.

Counting out the requisite paces aloud, I strode boldly out into the desert…‘Five hundred and ninety eight, five hundred and ninety nine, six hundred, right lad, up the dune, over the top and Bob’s your uncle.’ It was quite hard work climbing the slope, the sand was on the soft side. What with the battery and my cumbersome rifle, I was puffing quite a bit when I crested the summit. There it all was stretched out before me, rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see and not a glimmer of habitation anywhere.

My heart sank like a stone; this was just impossible, I had worked it out most carefully. ‘Don’t panic, think it through,’ I told myself aloud, ‘look, let’s go over again. Now think, when you were at D. Company, you could see HQ. and Support Company about a quarter of a mile apart, roughly the same distance from where you were standing, right? Right then, HQ has to be somewhere near here;’ but where?

Being a desert greenhorn, I had forgotten what I had been told about heat hazes distorting distances. In other words, although both sites appeared to be on the same axis, in reality they were not. The sensible thing to do would have been to retrace my steps back to Support Company, but I’m a stubborn sod. Convinced that my calculations were right, I obstinately decided to press on a bit further, simply because I remembered that I had underestimated the original distance to D. Company.

It was hard going up on the dunes, so I came back down to firmer ground to travel between them. In the desert the terrain looks very similar wherever one looks, one ridge looks like another, and they don’t run in straight lines either. In addition, as I was to discover it is very easy to get lost, because unknown to me I was being gradually channelled further and further away from my intended path.

After another half hour or so, I had to admit the dreaded truth; my stupidity had led to me being lost in thousands of square miles of shimmering sizzling sand. Fear gripped me, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ I asked myself. Panic would not help my dire situation, I tried to be rational, make some sort of plan. By now the sun was almost directly overhead, which didn’t help me to decide which way was north etcetera, and it was hot. Could I find my way back? I doubted it. No I was lost, but I just couldn’t give up, I had to make a decision.

Trying to be positive, I reasoned that although I didn’t have a clue as to how far it was, the Suez Canal would still be the nearest habitation and possible salvation. Mentally I went over my route so far and guessed rather than knew that the canal would be off to my right. ‘Let’s go, at least you’re doing something, not just giving in,’ I said to reassure myself.

In dire circumstances, one is aware that life is a very precious thing, and one is prepared to go to great lengths to preserve it. Doing something, however hopeless, was my way of at least making an effort to achieve that desired result. Off I went head down to avoid the horizon, distances were much too vast to contemplate.

Some time later a flash of sunlight on a white object caught my attention. ‘What’s that?’ I muttered, ’Oh my God, just what I don’t need.’ An icy knot twisted in my stomach at the site, it was the bleached bones of a camel’s skeleton. ’Bloody hell, if a camel couldn’t make it, what chance do I have?’ I said aloud. I had resorted to talking to myself, probably for reassurance. It worked, my positive side responded, ’Don’t be stupid, there could be a dozen reasons why the poor old sod perished here, so keep going, you’ll make it.’ However, it was with a niggling little thought at the back of my mind that Moses had roamed this desert for forty years that I took the next step.

Not long after that macabre incident I was given a glimmer of hope, I came across the distinct signs of a track. It wasn’t exactly overused, but it was definitely a track, or at least a path of sorts, and even neglected paths led somewhere. By now the sun had past its apex and I was able to confirm the path went east to west. The Suez Canal I had deduced was west of my position, which was my only chance of survival, so west is where I headed. In places the track was hard to distinguish and I did lose it at times, which worryingly I had to spend time and effort trying to locate it. I didn’t want to stray from it because as I said, it obviously led to something somewhere, and so stubbornly I kept going westward.

I stopped dead in my tracks; the most incongruous site confronted me. ’God, I’m hallucinating, the heats getting to me, this is getting bloody serious.’ Desperately I screwed my eyes tight shut, warily, I opened them again. ’It can’t be!’ I still couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes, but, ’Yes, it’s s bloody Redcap,’ (British Military Policeman) my heart soared, I was safe. This man was standing as large as life outside a small dilapidated single story ruin miles from anywhere.

He showed no surprise whatsoever as I approached him, ’Do you know the whereabouts of the Royal Berkshire Regiment?’ I asked hopefully.

‘No mate, but the Corporal inside has a marked map, he should know,’ he replied with about as much emotion as if I had asked him the time of day. Did he not realise the dangers I had endured? ’Thanks,’ I mumbled ungraciously, stepping through a hole in the crumbling wall which had probably been a doorway at some time. A military police corporal was sitting on an upturned ammunition box, head down studying a map; I repeated my question as to the whereabouts of my unit.

Slowly he raised his head, a surprised look swept over his face, ’I know you,’ he said.

Good God, it was a chap I was at school with; his father was our local village copper. I did know that Ivan, his son, had become a Police Cadet when he left school. It was only natural that he had enlisted in the military police when, like the rest of us he was called up for National Service.

Surprisingly, and it proves just how easy it is to become disorientated in the desert, after all of my wanderings, I discovered I was only about a couple of miles from my unit. Ominously, still in excess of thirty miles from the canal, I would never have made it! Anyway, we had a cuppa and a good old natter about times past when the drone of an aircraft jolted me back to reality. Bloody hell! The spotter plane, I had forgotten all about it and I still had the battery. I could just imagine the wrath of the corporal when I arrived. Oh well, I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, I thought philosophically.

Hurriedly I took my leave, the plane was flying around in circles over my unit. I imagined the pilot trying to communicate with the ground and cursing because he didn’t get an answer. That will teach the corporal to pick on me, I thought maliciously

The couple of miles to the camp took a good three quarters of an hour to cover, and the plane had disappeared long ago by then. I have to confess I was somewhat hot and bothered when I eventually arrived. To be honest, probably more from the anticipation of my reception, than from the heat.

Yes, my anxieties were confirmed, I was greeted with an irate shout, ‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’

No, not my friendly corporal this time, his superior, a sergeant, ‘Corporal Brennan,’ he shouted at the unfortunate corporal, ‘Don’t ever let this man out of your site again, he can’t be trusted, not even to go for a crap on his own,’ that and a veritable diatribe of similar abuse was my inauspicious welcome, the sergeant wasn’t a happy bunny. I found out later that the pilot had actually landed his plane to find out what the problem with communications was, he wasn’t happy either. Me? I was ecstatic, I had made it back safely, and in spite of my ordeal, I had actually delivered the bloody battery, albeit too late!

* * *

I did get a tongue in cheek mention in the Regimental magazine later, however, no further blame was apportioned to me, and ironically I did eventually make corporal myself.

Ray Curtis

Author Ray Curtis

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