Posted by: eppingstrider | 08/07/2011

6d: RAF and WRNS in Egypt

You’ll hear on the beginning of tape 5 b that I made pretty much of a mess of things and I tried in that place to sort things out, indicating I’d carry on editing on this and then go back to continue the chronological story.

There was an incident in 1940 when I was in Alexandria at Ras El Tin that I want to record because it’s the start of my tie-up with the RAF.

I was on duty, we were waiting for one of our ‘boats to come in, and there was an RAF float plane wandering around by our part of the harbour and round… and backing it up and down.  There was someone in the cockpit waving his arms like mad, and I recognised he was semaphoring, so I said to my coxswain “What is he saying?” And he said he wouldn’t know, so I said “Wait a minute, you’re supposed to be trained in semaphore” well, the requirements were for Morse and semaphore for coxswain, and he said ”Well, I’ve never had anything to do with that.”  So I looked up and this fellow was still waving his arms around, so I put my hands up in a signal I remembered from when I was a Boy Scout, no a Cub I think it was, indicating that I was conscious he was trying to do something, and he started off again but his arms were waving around like crazy.  So I tried to spell out s-l-o-w-e-r but I couldn’t remember what ‘w’ was, so I spelled s-l-o-e-r and the fellow on the plane acknowledged that and he started waving his hands again but he did it very very slowly and I was able to read what he was saying and it was simple!  He said ”Please can I use one of your moorings”.  (laughs) And we hadn’t got any!  So I grabbed the coxswain and said look get on the launch and take him up to buoy number whatever it was and subsequently the pilot of that plane and his observer came ashore and he came over to me and we had a chat about none of us knowing how to communicate.

Anyway he was grateful and he went off and subsequently he went to the RAF Mess which as I mentioned before was established in what had been previously the Yacht Club in Ras El Tin, and he invited me along to meet the fellow in charge there and have a chat with those blokes there, and as a result of this, I found out that they were there and were anticipating receiving what they call a Solent squadron up from the Far East coming up for operation in the Mediterranean.  And the Solent was the military craft developed from our C Class flying boats; we had long chats and he used to ask me all sorts of questions and over time we established a relationship which I found very helpful and he obviously did find it very helpful because I had suddenly got a communication from Maxwell that I would be moving in a very short time to take over Sharjah in the Gulf.  And although this would have been quite an interesting posting because at that time Sharjah was really just a Beau Geste type of fort which was built around a well, we had our own armed guards, almost a little army that patrolled day and night, we had gates that were locked, it really was a fortress, because there were only marauding tribes around, no civilisation, only marauding tribes fighting against each other.  But we had to keep ourselves well protected or else they’d come in and pinch anything and everything we’d got.  And we had to protect our airstrip too.  At that time we had both land planes going eastbound as well as flying boats, so well, alright I thought I’d be posted there, it wouldn’t be too bad, and though it was 1940 it didn’t worry me too much, but I suddenly heard that the posting had been cancelled and I’d be remaining in Alexandria.  And I subsequently found out that it was as a result of the RAF indicating to their Air Commanding in Alexandria that they didn’t want me to move away because I was so helpful to them at Ras El Tin, and they didn’t want to lose me.  So fortunately Maxwell then accepted what the AOC RAF wanted and stopped my posting, which was very useful!

I also on tape 5a mention starting up a flat in Zamalek, as a mess for the lads which was away from the original mess where we couldn’t sleep because of the noise we used to get from the nightclubs on the river the other side.  And I found another flat in this block of Bayla Mansions, I organised it, and I tried to get it organised running on mess lines according to the Airways handbook, which also talks about amongst many other things, about airways messes.  Anyway I had a good idea about it, having some experience as a result of being down at Mbeya, so I knew something, roughly.  Who moved in with me?  There was me, Alistair Thompson, Oliver Hove, Keith Cockerell, that’s right just the four of us, and it was a four bedroom flat which was very useful,  quite apart from the dining room and bathroom.

One incident which happened as a result of this mess, was, you know we were very near the Gezira Club and we spent whatever spare time we had doing either squash or tennis or swimming; swimming of course very frequently, or just sitting under the shade of the trees and having tea or a cold drink!  But we spent a lot of time at Gezira Club, particularly around the pool, and we used to meet a lot of fellows and of course a lot of girls!  A lot of the girls were daughters of the Government officials who lived and were brought up in Cairo because their fathers were Egyptian Government officials although they were English fellows.  And these lasses used to talk to us occasionally, and we’d take them to the dance at Gezira Club, we socialised generally which made the lads very happy of course.  But on one occasion we found that the lasses weren’t government girls or Cairo girls, they were in fact Wrens (WRNS). One of them was saying that they weren’t quite certain whether they were going to stay the night because they’d got three or four days leave from Alexandria down in Cairo, but they hadn’t been able to get into any of the Wrens’ accommodation.  So we said, well, all right, we’ve got one spare room, and if you don’t mind sharing the accommodation you can move in there.  And they said, no you can’t do that sort of thing, and we said, well that’s all right.  We’re used to having our own staff move in and move out, so its just the same.  So they said, well, could you really?  So we took them up to our mess because I think one of the lads was away, so that we’d got the spare room and they just used that room and they had breakfast with us the next morning and then they spent their day doing what they wanted to do.  But subsequently they said when they were leaving, well, how much do we owe you for messing?  And we said, well that’s all right, we enjoyed your company… but you could bring us some cigarettes or some tobacco when you next come.  And they said, ooh, yes we’ll do that!  But the next thing that happened on that line was a phone call from some Wren who was coming to Cairo and said could she use our accommodation and she said she will bring a tin of tobacco.  And there were two of us, Oliver and myself who smoked pipes, the rest smoked cigarettes, so Oliver and I got tins of navy pipe tobacco and it was good stuff! The best smokes we had for years during the war!

Several Wrens, in pairs, came and stayed in one of the rooms in our mess when one of the fellows was away, and it really was a change and it was amusing, and it was lovely having that tobacco! But I really ought to stop being facetious and get on with the proper job!

I seem to have finished any editing I wanted to do up to Tape 5a, so I’ll now go back to Tape 5b and try to carry on historically from where I was then.

[end of entries]



  1. I live and work in Mbeya, Tanzania, flying with MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) – Tanzania. I am interested in any images or history of Imperial Airways’ night stop in Mbeya. The author’s account of Mbeya is indeed interesting. That airfield was open until last year when the new Songwe airport was opened. The album photos of the airfield are stirring. The mountains today, which are home-field sign-posts to any aviator, are identical, of course, to the images of 80 years ago. Would it be possible to have larger copies of these snapshots? Any more information or images would also be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Steve, sorry for the delay in replying. You can see the Mbeya pictures in the photo album. I’ll be rescanning some of them next month to see if I can get a clearer reproduction, so if there are any in particular that interest you, let me know and I’ll try them again for you.

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