A DESERT RAT'S STORY
KOM EL DEK PRISON
The journey to Alex Station was over in a few minutes and as
I approached the exit I saw that all passes were examined by two Redcaps stationed
by the gate. Mine was closely examined and it was pointed out to me that my
leave had expired the previous day. I gave my explanation and said that I
intended catching my train that evening. I was then asked why I was entering
the station and not leaving and a sergeant was called. At the time I held
full corporal rank. The sergeant did not accept my explanation. I understood
why when he said quite vehemently that the last time he came in contact with
the Royals was in Palestine in 9 9 where he was involved in a punch up. He
got beaten up and came off a very poor second best. It was then he ordered
that I be immediately detained in Kom el Dik Barracks.
I assumed that I would be detained until the train left, depriving me of an extra few hours. I was put in a cell containing sixteen others, all criminals and deserters of the lowest type. I then learnt that scores of servicemen were at loose in Cairo and Alexandria, the so-called Free English, living by thieving from soldiers and others on leave. They were really the lowest of the low, and now I understood the close scrutiny of all leave passes and the constant presence of Redcaps in Alex. Our boots were taken away and we walked around in socks. One man in particular with cropped hair and a flattened forehead had two huge holes in the heels of his grey Army socks, a disgusting looking specimen.
By seven p.m. I knew I was not getting out. We then were given three square mattresses to lie on which were taken away at dawn. Food was placed in the cell and shared out and it was very poor. Those that cooked it knew it was going to deserters and criminals and the quality showed. Now and again a fight would start, more often than not over a trifling matter. It was a week before I realised that nothing was being done to get me out and that my regiment did not know of my predicament. Fighting and beatings took place daily. Being a corporal and certainly from a fighting regiment, I was picked on the first day by some criminal type and had to give him a real beating. From then on I had no problems.
I managed to get hold of a piece of paper and a pencil and wrote down my name, rank and number and waited near a window until an officer came by. Holding the note out the window I called to him, giving him a very brief explanation and asking him to get a message to Major Barne to get me out. Thank goodness kept his word and the following day the door opened. I breathed fresh air for the first time in ten days.
My last thoughts were for the Polish soldier in the next cell who had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to be shot. He had then been waiting two months for the result of his appeal, his nerves must have been shattered. I never heard his fate, all I knew was that he had a terrible time in Poland before he ever reached Egypt.
The train left on time and after hitching lifts from Mersa Matruh I arrived at Regimental Headquarters. Jumping down from the back of the truck I came face to face with Dixie Lewis, the Regimental Sergeant Major. He exclaimed, “Of all the people who had to go on the loose, I’m surprised it was you.” I didn’t bother to reply as I was consoled that most of my missing days was due to the Redcaps, not to me.
On arriving at my Squadron I gave a full explanation to Major Barne, who was very annoyed at the heavy handed attitude of the non-combatant Redcaps back in Alex and made his comments to their C.O. by signal later in the day. I rejoined my troop and just a few hours later, we mounted up and were away again up the blue. I wondered what would have been my position if I had not gotten that officer to let the regiment know of my whereabouts. Some of those in the cell had been inside for several months and the authorities were in no hurry to deal with them considering the whole lot deserved to be where they were. Absolute scum who robbed soldiers on short leave from the desert hardships.
CORPORAL PRIOR'S DEATH
I didn’t meet up with Corporal Prior the whole time I was in Alex. When he came back from leave, he said he had a great time. He forgave me for leaving before him and we were still good pals. It was great to be back with my Squadron. We all remained behind the lines for a few days longer and then an event occurred, the sheer horror of which none of us who witnessed it can ever forget. Corporal Prior was seated on the turret of his armoured car talking to a few of us and lowered himself down within his car. As he did so he grasped the automatic Bren gun mounted on the turret but he must have touched the trigger for the whole magazine fired into his face and he was killed within a second. His death haunted me for many months and even now I think of it with some sadness. His happy smiling face is all we have to remember apart from the roaring sound of the Bren in that split second. An utter waste of a brave man’s life, one who recovered from wounds only to be decapitated before our eyes.