In 1948 there was a shortage of troop ships and the soldiers in Egypt became aware that their National Service would be extended for a period of time. As a result Billy endured an additional 6 months in the desert counting the days until he was in civvy street and no longer playing silly buggers in the army.
Everyone was assigned demobilization numbers, which were announced periodically and there was always a celebration in the bar tent to wish the lucky individuals bon voyage. These parties rarely finished until everyone was paralytic from Stella, an Egyptian chemical beer, not a female. There was also a party most Saturday nights at the bar tent with all the camp characters in attendance. The notable ones included ‘Maggot,’ an old regular soldier who was not deranged, but although there was a light on, no one was home. He was not exactly the life of the party and would invariably pass out, sleep in his clothes and resemble his namesake the following morning. Corporal Magio who ran the local post office and his assistant Pat Hughes, who was Billy’s close friend.
There was also Scouse Mc Cabe, a charming colourful lad from Liverpool who
was the most popular of this motley group and would sometimes arrive on a donkey,
which he borrowed from an Arab down the street when he wasn’t looking.
Scouse was an entertainer and looked great on his ass in civilian cloths playing
his guitar and singing. The thought of going home was always uppermost at the
parties and toasting the fortunate outgoing soldiers was a good excuse for imbibing.
Many a good time was had in that bar tent at Moascar!
In the spring young men’s fancy turn to other things and in Egypt other things were thin on the ground for private soldiers, requiring exceptional ingenuity to participate.
Although there were many ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girls in the garrison, meeting them was an accomplishment. They were rarely seen at the garrison dance, which was a beautiful open-air arragnment with colourful sunshades covered tables and chairs surrounding the dance floor. Strings of lights illuminated the area and a soft drink bar displayed delicious pastries to die for. This facility was for other ranks and the majority of the girls were foreigners, related to civilian workers at the garrison. Some of them were very attractive. One such girl who caught Billy’s eye was a pretty young thing of Middle Eastern decent and after dancing together a couple of times, he attempted to corral her with a lemonade and pastry seduction.
Few could resist those tiny delectable icing covered Egyptian cakes, which teased the palate and enticed you back for more. The girl agreed without hesitation - However she explained that it’s traditional to buy for the whole family who were her chaperones, pointing to a group of about 13 people, mostly elderly ladies covered from head to toe in black veils, seated together one side of the dance floor. Regrettably, Billy was obliged to reveal his inadequate financial circumstances, ending the romance before it began. Another tragedy of being a lower rank British soldier with few disposable shillings in your pocket!
Apparently the reason the ATS girls didn’t attend the garrison dances, was that they received numerous sergeant mess invitations which were higher on their priority list, no doubt having something to do with the fact that these functions were completely free and provided real drinks with food, plus transportation to and from.
Billy had a friend who was promoted from a corporal to a sergeant and kindly
arranged for him to act as a waiter at one of the sergeant mess functions. The
benefit of this duty in addition to edible food and free drinks was the close
proximity to the elusive females.
The party started formally with the ATS girls arriving in a motorized chariot and the sergeants, resplendent in their best bib and tucker, graciously welcoming them at the door. Billy, acting out his best interpretation of a waiter, with a white towel over one arm, served drinks and removed empty glasses with efficiency, while checking out the attributes of the guests. The sergeants were no different from the other ranks on such occasions and as the evening progressed and the liquor flowed, a number of them including his friend became incapacitated. Billy put his friend to bed and returned to the dance to find one
of the more attractive young ladies standing around unattended. Ignoring the sergeants who were either being propped up or horizontal, Billy tripped the light fantastic for the remainder of the evening with a prize normally reserved for the upper echelon.
At the appointed hour a lorry arrived and the girls climbed into the back with
a little assistance from the driver. Billy did his disappearing act to avoid
cleaning up the mess.
During the next party in the bar tent, Billy related the events of the sergeants mess and Scouse announced to their surprise that his sister was an ATS girl in the garrison. After a lot of cajoling, Scouse agreed to try and arrange a get together for a number of the in-crowd. The meeting took place in the sumptuous bar at the Garrison Club in Moascar, which was a prestigious facility exceeding their expectations. The four soldiers were the first to arrive and seated themselves in soft comfortable armchairs, ordering Stella beer and anxiously awaited their female escorts for the evening.
Then before you could say ‘my girl will be prettier than yours,’ a singularly unattractive rotund female of generous proportions approached, followed by five hounds of the Baskervilles in various shapes and sizes. The soldiers were transfixed in disbelief like deer caught in the headlights as they realized that they were stuck for the evening, not having an exit strategy. All eyes then focused on the only female who didn’t belong in a kennel, and sensing their attention, she let it be known that she was engaged to a soldier in the garrison and wasn’t available. ‘What have you got yourself into this time Ollie,’ Billy thought, – settling in for an interesting evening.
Whatever natural attributes the ATS contingent lacked, which was considerable, they attempted to compensate with their talent and ability as magicians to make large quantities of Stella beer disappear en mass. At 10 Stellas a round and 10 ackers a bottle, the piggy on the bank was looking a little anemic, regardless of the fact that they had sold a blanket to subsidize the evening’s entertainment. Coincidentally the drinking party came to an abrupt end exactly the same time the funds were depleted and everyone made their way to their respective quarters.
It’s amazing how the affluence of inkerhol and the loneliness of the desert affect ones’ memory and prospective, because the devils for punishment came back for more later on. In case these stories are misleading and readers feel that the ATS girls are being maligned, let it be said in their defense that they had many redeeming qualities and in particular, they were available and of the female gender. Man does not live on bread alone, as they say!
After selling another blanket to fortify the exchequer, another party was arranged
with the condition that the ATS girls not outnumber the soldiers. One of the
original four soldiers who was determined to retain his sanity dropped out and
was replaced by Maggot, who you may recall was a sandwich short of a picnic
and was considered be a suitable companion for the cub leader, with a little
poetic justice thrown in.
The four hopefuls and four of the original Baskervillians met at the NAAFI club in Ismailia, the closest town to the garrison. Events paralleled the previous get together, with the ‘ladies’ who had a great affection for alcoholic beverages, and Billy’s trophy with an additional addiction to groceries, absorbing more liquid than was humanly possible. - Proverbial hollow leg imbibers were amateurs in comparison! This time the funds held out all evening until they were ushered out the door and the merry group staggered through the town on their way back to the garrison.
Then before you could say ‘You couldn’t possibly drink any more,’
the hounds piled into a local Arab bar and ordered Stella. For whatever reason
at that time, the soldiers were embarrassed to admit that their finances were
depleted and because the drinks arrived so quickly, everyone sat down to enjoy
the beer they knew they couldn’t pay for. Immediately our hero pondered
how countries like Egypt dealt with wayward foreigners and vivid images of steel
bars, separated hands and chain gangs in the 100-degree desert appeared. Billy’s
answer to the dilemma was to nip the situation in the bud before it got out
of control and landed them all in the questionable proverbial cooler. Excusing
himself from the group he approached the manager of the establishment and explained
the true story of their plight.
Fortunately the manager spoke English and Billy in civilian clothes explained that he was a British officer and was willing to leave his pay book as collateral for the money, which he would have his batman deliver the following day. The manager, who must have been knowledgeable in the ways of two fisted lady drinkers, and the word ‘lady’ is used advisedly, was empathetic, very polite, wished them well and declined the offer of the pay book. The sale of one more blanket provided the necessary money to do the honourable thing the following day. “Captain Brown wishes me to convey his best wishes, a sincere apology and reimbursement, e’ also wants me to giv’ you 10 bob, which is 80 ackers for the booze an’ sum’ fing for yourself.”
So how could they sell all these blankets and still keep warm in the winter under canvas, you may be prompted to enquire? And the answer is that the soldiers being demobbed left their blankets on their beds where periodically someone would collect them. It was a simple matter of getting to the blankets before the collector. Blankets were as good as currency with the Arabs and had a standard value, which didn’t vary. The trick was getting them out of the garrison, which was not difficult in vehicles. Blankets were in great demand by the Arabs and could be sold to almost anyone. In addition to their intended use they were also used as floor covers and made into garments such as overcoats. One time the soldier had occasion to visit an army blanket storage facility out in the desert. What he witnessed was an unbelievable sight of used blankets piled 10 feet high, forming roads up and down the compound miles long and all uncovered. There were literally millions of them and probably more rotting away by the time the British troops finally left Egypt.
Leaving all these blankets in Egypt in 1951, which were the same as currency must have had a seriously affect on the Egyptian economy, although not indefinitely, because bank notes would probably be preferable for carrying around in wallets. On second thoughts perhaps blankets, as currency could stimulate the Egyptian economy – starting with the building industry erecting larger banks to house the blankets and bigger houses for the same purpose, in addition to bigger and better safes. Special transportation services such as blanket taxies would be required to carry the blankets and new equipment necessary to authenticate them would be developed.
Simple household items like tables would have to be redesigned to accommodate the blankets when playing cards and expressions like I’ll raise you a blanket, blanket coverage, another day another blanket, do you think blankets grow on trees and blankets are the route of all evil, could generate an industry in explanatory books. To avoid trips to the store with 200 blankets or more for things like refrigerators, the blankets could be stamped indicating different denominations, requiring special stamping equipment. No one would be left out in the ‘cold’ in this ‘blanket’ society! That’s it - Billy declines to elaborate any more on the advantages of this new economy, in case he finds himself back in Egypt as an official blanket advisor to the government and with his luck the Baskervillians would still be there squeezing the Stella bottles.
Who was it that said, “If you can keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs, you obviously don’t understand the situation?” – Help!