Chapter 1 : By Air to Cairo

Soliman Pacha Midan, Cairo

Soliman Pacha Midan, Cairo

This chapter starts early on the morning of the 15th of February, the scene being my room at the billet which contained three beds, the other two being occupied by Bob and Pip.

Pip was due to leave for home that morning, and at half past five there was a knock on the door as the billet boy, a young Lebanese of about fourteen years of age, came to wake him up.

Knowing what this was I did not stir but turned over for a while and left Pip to get his things together for the journey.

It was just on six o'clock when I got up and Pip having already washed and shaved I did likewise while he packed up his kit.

Having done this I gave him a hand with his things and took them across the road to the Mess where the truck was going to pick him up at seven o'clock.

Bob was woken up by Pip to say goodbye and then he went around to the other chaps and said goodbye to them as well.

At seven o'clock the truck came up and I loaded Pips kit onto it and wished him a good voyage home, wishing all the time that I was going with him. There is one other chap from the Mess as well, and some more from the Mess down the road, so they were a nice little company travelling together. Their faces showed their happiness, but there was a feeling of regret as well, for the two from my Mess had been with us a long time, and had been very happy here, being sorry in a way to leave.

My next task that morning was to pack my own kit and then at half past seven I went for my breakfast in the Mess. Picking up my kit, I walked down the road with some of the boys and arrived at the office just on eight o'clock, just as if I was going to work at the normal time.

Instead of starting work, I sat down at the same typewriter as I am writing this with, and wrote you my lettercard number 731, as I wanted you to have a few lines from me before I set off.

Feeling in the mood for writing, I was able to dash it off quickly and was finished by half past eight, thus allowing myself a short while to say goodbye to the chaps here and see that Jack, who was taking over from me for the fortnight, was alright in the office.

With my kit on my back I strolled down the road to the transport yard and met Ken and Scotty waiting there for me, with their kit, all set to go.

At a quarter to nine, a 15 cwt truck came up and we all piled into it, together with a chap who used to work in my office whose name is Charlie, and who wanted to get down into town that morning.

This truck took us on the normal route to town, and at the junction of the village road with the main road we picked up Cyril of the APO who was going down to town on his day off duty.

The journey to town took about half an hour, descending to the level of the plain by way of the road that twists and turns around the hillside, finishing up with a long straight run into town.

We did not go through the centre of the town but went round the outside of it, by devious routes, to a spot the other side where we picked up the necessary papers required to make our journey.

Going across town in the truck, dodging the trams with their bells clanging and the hundreds of local inhabitants who 'Jay Walk' across the streets, we dropped the two chaps, Charlie and Cyril, off at different points so that they could get to their destinations without having to walk very far.

The time was about a quarter to ten when we arrived at the airport, and the truck left us there, to return up here.

Our first action at the airport was to report in and enquire as to what our next move was.

Having gone through the usual formula of identification and examination of papers, during which all our particulars were entered up on a loading chart for the 'plane, we were weighed and then our baggage.

My own weight with greatcoat was 170 lbs and my kit weighed 20 lbs which was well below the 60 we were allowed to take.

The 'plane we were to fly in was a special one that went straight through to Cairo without stopping anywhere, but it was delayed and we had to wait until midday before it came in.

To pass the time, we went to the NAAFI and had some coffee and cakes, then took a walk around the 'drome, after which we spent the time in watching the various planes of all types come and go.

This proved particularly interesting as there were many different kinds, and Ken was very keen on seeing them as he had not seen any airplanes at close quarters before, except those little two seater ones that used to tour the country with "Cobham's Circus" or some other show, and take people up for "Five Shilling Hops".

When the 'plane arrived in it was found that there were already some passengers on it, and it could not take the three of us.

Fortunately there was another 'plane going the same way at about the same time which could take one, and as it was the more comfortable 'plane I asked Ken to travel in it.

The 'plane that Scotty and myself were to travel in was a big twin engined monoplane, while the one in which Ken travelled was a single engined little taxi 'plane.

It was half past twelve when we left the 'drome, and because of the other passengers which we had on board we touched down at an airport after an hours flying, but first of all let me tell of what it felt like to fly that part of the journey.

Having got into the 'plane by a small door in the side, and shut the door tightly, the engines having already been warmed up, the blocks were removed from the wheels and the 'plane taxied across the 'drome to the far end, turning round to face into the wind.

With the brakes on the engines were revved up to top speed and then the brakes released, so that we moved forward at ever increasing speed and the ground flashed past so that it became almost impossible to see clearly the things we passed.

The speed at the time was about ninety miles an hour, and just then we felt the tail of the 'plane lift up and leave the ground.

It was difficult to tell when the 'plane itself actually left the ground, for all we could go by was the fact that the ground seemed to be slipping away on each side of us, and the speed seemed to grow less, though in fact it was increasing all the time until it reached something like 150 miles an hour.

Most of the time we flew at two or three thousand feet, and the ground below us was spread out like a huge model map with tiny objects moving along the roads.

The sky was fairly clear apart from a few white clouds that floated by at different heights, and there was no bumpiness at all.

It was very interesting to watch the ground slipping past underneath and note each town as we passed it, though they all looked very different from up there, to what they did when we have passed through them by road.

There were seats in the 'plane but we had to sit on some of the freight that it was carrying, though we did not mind that, as there were large windows in its sides and we could see everything that we were passing over.

Towards the end of the first hour's flying we ran into some rather dirty looking clouds and things became a little "bumpy" with the 'plane dropping into air pockets now and again.

Having been up in the air before at Croydon I knew what to expect and was prepared for the bump, which caused your tummy to come up into your throat, very much like sea-sickness, but it was not very bad and all was well.

We passed some airdromes on the way and at the end of the hour we came to a big one, around which we circled, loosing height all the time.

Our landing wheels were let down, and we turned into the wind, making for the 'drome. Skimming the tops of some trees we hit the runway with a very gentle bump and taxied to the far end where we turned and taxied up to the control tower.

Thus my first hours flying had been completed and leaving the 'plane with our kit inside we went to the main airdrome buildings and had a most excellent three course lunch.

The other people on the 'plane did not go any further with us, and so we were able to have the seats from there on, also we picked up a couple more passengers who were going to the same place.

The engines were started, we were inside and the door shut, in fact all set to leave, when Ken arrived in the small 'plane.

He did not know what was to happen at that 'drome, also the engines were making a lot of noise besides which I was shut inside the 'plane, so I made signs to him through the glass, by pointing to my mouth and to the main buildings, that he was to go there and get something to eat.

Ken having understood what I meant, we turned into the wind again and took off soon after half past two.

There were a few more clouds about this time, and towards the end of the journey things became a bit bumpy again, but nothing very bad.

This part of the journey was very much the same, except that we passed over some very desolate country and there was not a lot of interest to see until we were at the end of the trip.

It was quite an experience seeing Cairo from the air, surrounded by its huge masses of sand and desert, with the delta of the Nile spread out between Cairo and the sea.

Dhows on the Nile

Dhows on the Nile

Once again having circled the 'drome we turned into the wind and came in low to land very gently, then taxied up to the control tower. Thus ended my first long air trip and it was a grand feeling to have done in three hours what would normally have taken about twenty hours by train.

It was about a quarter to five when we arrived and not long after we had reported ourselves in, Ken arrived, so when he had done the same we set off for the city to find ourselves a bed for the night.

Getting a lift on a military bus we made our way to the main road, where we walked a short way to the tramlines. A short wait and we got onto the right tram, but what a crush, even worse than those down here.

The trams themselves were far bigger and better, and travelled faster, but the crowds that got onto them were terrific. Inside everyone had to breath in and out together or someone would have been pushed off, while on the outside they were clinging on to everything that would bear the weight of a person.

By this time it was getting dark and as we got into the centre of the city the lights came on, with the many coloured neon signs making huge splashes of colour across the sky.

We got off the tram at Cairo station and went to the accommodation centre there, where we were told there was room for us to sleep at the Alamein House hostel.

Although I have been to Cairo before a couple of times I did not know where this was, also we had our kit to carry, so we hired a taxi and were there in no time.

I have heard a lot about the dangerous driving of the taxis in Paris, but I doubt if they are any worse than those in Cairo now, for they are the same ones as they had before the war and they have not been able to get any spares to do the necessary repairs, with the result that most of them are very nearly falling to bits, their main deficiency being brakes.

Having arrived at the hostel we booked in and had a clean up after the days journey, followed by some tea, then we went along to the Paymaster where we changed our money into Egyptian.

When they saw my army number there they asked me how I had got it, so I told them that I too had been in the Pay Corps at one time. It was not until later that it struck me that they would be able to tell me where I could find Tommy White, but by that time they were closed and so I had to leave it until the next day.

As I needed a lot of money the next day for our trip to the south I changed just over twenty pounds Egyptian to last me the fortnight.

By this time I had found my bearings in the city, but to be on the safe side I obtained a small guide book with a street map and we made our way to the YMCA to try and book up for a trip, but the booking centre was closed and so we also had to leave that until the following morning.

Cairo, the Opera Square

Cairo, the Opera Square

The time was still quite early, and as we did not want to go to bed so soon or to start wandering around the streets before we knew the place we had a look at the list of films showing, and on seeing that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was being shown at the "Diana" we decided to see it in case we missed it.

It really was a wonderful film, well worth seeing, and I am very pleased that I was able to see it as I think that I put it in the same class as the great hit film "Gone with the Wind".

In Cairo the last houses of the films go in very late at half past nine, and we thought that we would be out in time to get to bed by midnight, but the picture was a long one, also there were a couple of "shorts" as well, with the result that it was a quarter to one when we came out and I had a terrific shock when I looked at my watch.

In the cinemas there they have a new feature to me, for at ten o'clock in the evening, before the main film starts they relay the broadcast news in English from Cairo broadcasting station, which makes a visit to the cinema all the more interesting.

Thus ended our first day of leave, and in the next chapter I'll cover the next six days.

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