05 On 'Active' Service; the Marquis and the Maquis; the Cairo Mutiny; Bounty on the Mutiny

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Chapter V

On ‘Active’ Service

We crossed the Channel in early 1946 and took a train, so packed that men were even sleeping on the luggage racks, across France to Marseilles. Our only contact with the outside world was with the dispirited people we saw at stations, and the main thing they were interested in was cigarettes. ‘Liberation’ had worn off a few months earlier; now, when anyone stole anything, they referred to it as ‘being liberated’.

We stopped over a day in Marseilles. Most of the draft, young men out of England for the first time, went off looking for the brothels. A couple of KRs attached themselves to me thinking I, with my knowledge of French, might lead them to a good time, but in the first bar we entered I discovered a Catalan railwayman with connections with the local Maquis. He invited me to meet his family and told how the Spanish anarchist exiles had been the originators of the underground Maquis, and the first to march into both Toulouse and Paris.

I felt humble having little to tell but an exercise in futility, and enjoyed the news and the hospitality. I wish I could say the same of my two companions, whom I had taken to a political discussion they could not understand, rather than sex, and whose contribution could not go beyond “Tell him he has a beautiful daughter.” Neither spoke French though one of them had spent five school years ‘learning’ French and had probably passed examinations in it, but his oral best was to produce endless cigarettes saying, “Tres bon, cigarette, tres bon.” The other could only repeat the inevitable “wee wee wee”. They boasted afterwards of having had a good meal with ‘some locals’ but I suspect they would have preferred an evening in the brothels like the rest.

The Marquis and the Maquis

Perhaps I should insert the anecdote of the Franco-Spanish Marquis here, though I was told it some years later, by Paco Gomez, and later had it confirmed by Miguel Garcia. It was one of the lighter ways in which the Spanish and Hispano-French Resistance maintained itself during those difficult years,

A Spanish conde of the old school, arrogant and vindictive like most of the kind but not wanting to risk his own life, had sat out the civil war in the comfort of Biarritz and fallen in love with the French way of life as experienced by the upper classes. He settled in a Paris chateau and, like many a rich Frenchman, discovered how pleasantly Nazi occupation changed life for them by crushing the working class completely. The only thing to mar his pleasure was the absence of cheap domestic service in plenty owing to the exigencies of war, and he sent, naturally enough, for Spaniards. El conde failed to consider the only workers wanting to get into Nazi-occupied France were those wanting to get out of Franco’s Spain.

The whole staff from butler to chambermaid were his sworn enemies but the poor fool probably was proud to be among Spaniards who had been taught their place. After a few weeks domestic bliss, the noble pair attended a function one night in 1940. The Polish opera singer and film star in (pre-1939) London and Berlin, Jan Kiepura, was giving a charity concert to which all society was present.

After the glittering occasion, and a bafflingly slow ride home, the marquis and marquesa returned to find their chateau stripped from top to bottom, the staff gone, every stick of furniture and all their possessions bar what they stood up in ransacked, down to the wine cellar (I said to Miguel, who liked his bevvy, “I bet I know who had that”). As they stood at the door stupefied in their furs and diamonds, the chauffeur drove off forever with the car. Hopefully it was raining and there was an air raid at the time, but that I don’t know.

The Cairo Mutiny

Well, talking of spoiling the Egyptians, I duly arrived in Egypt. We were taken to the camp of Heliopolis, just outside Cairo. The KRRC draft went from there to Greece, but I was detached to go to a transit camp ‘to await my own unit’. This was another of the Army’s games. The KRRC shoved its ‘trouble-makers’ into the Pioneer Corps, and it wasn’t having the reverse apply. The Pioneer Corps, having no other corps in turn in which to shove people they didn’t want, sent their unwanted overseas, and ‘lost’ them in a transit camp. In the so-called ‘transit’ camp in Abbassia, to which I was transferred, some had been waiting for a posting for years.

Four Irish lads in the Pioneers permanently ‘awaiting posting’ had actually got posted the week I arrived despite Republican associations. They had been flown down as reinforcements to guard an internment camp for Jewish terrorists from Palestine in Kenya. The first day they were there, a break-out had occurred through one omitting to lock the gates, and the commandant had asked sarcastically if they realised what a prison was.

We should do,” one answered laconically. “We’ve done enough bird ourselves”. The commandant, a military man of the old school, was so indignant that GHQ Cairo had sent him people with a ‘bad record’ he flew them back next day. Their trip cost a small fortune at a time when at home austerity was being rigidly enforced, but anything goes in the sacred name of Defence. Someone who had said goodbye to the lads on Tuesday in Cairo met them on the Friday and asked if the plane had been delayed!

Everyone was looking forward to demob. The magic words were being uttered ‘Demob by Christmas’, which had a familiar ring. Yet the actual conditions of this type of existence, especially compared with detention, were hardly onerous when one thinks of how other armies treated their malcontents.

One could take a tram into Cairo, even spend weeks in private houses and wear civilian clothes, and provided one kept in touch ‘to see if a posting came up on the board’, no regulation was infringed or if it did no one gave a damn; whereas hanging about the camp dutifully and aimlessly meant one could always be called upon for routine tasks.

The people in charge were the camp police, and as our mail had to be picked up from their guard room they knew we hadn’t gone over the hill. They were just unpaid lance-corporals who had got stuck in transit themselves, sometimes because the unit to which they were attached had moved on while they were in hospital. There were always one or two ready to oblige by notifying the few who had ‘gone private’ if we were wanted. One would even arrange to pick up the pay for people in return for the odd favour.

I was among rare exceptions in ‘going private’ — or ‘going wog’ as they put it (two or three others who did so were locally recruited people who had homes in Cairo). It seemed to me incredible, and still does, that the overwhelming majority would not even leave the barracks, when they would have discovered other soldiers walking about freely. They believed themselves under siege.

To walk out into the street and mingle with the crowds seemed to them the height of foolhardiness. I was regarded as mad because I would leave the main gate of the barracks and disappear down a sinister dark alleyway opposite, the short cut to the tramway. Everyone expected me to get my throat cut gratuitously. Some might go in a pick-up truck to a Services canteen but only twice did I persuade a few, really daring, to go to a downtown cinema with me (it was “The Al Jolson Story” that did the trick) as opposed to the camp cinema. Even so, they wouldn’t take the tram and preferred a taxi and only then because we were four passengers to the driver, one of us was a particularly tough character and I was reckoned to be in the know as to what was going on in the town, which indeed I was — it was tranquil.

People lounging round in such circumstances, living an utterly pointless existence just because somebody in Whitehall thought someone might run off with the Suez Canal, and with an indeterminate date of service, become bored. A lot sought out jobs around the transit camp, for instance in the cookhouse, for the sake of something to do. When the war had been on, people could be persuaded that staying in the army was inevitable or even worthwhile. Even that consolation had been deprived the minority held back from the front by policy; now the forced time-wasters were in the majority. Under the slogan ‘Roll on demob’ rather than anything high-falutin, the background developed for Soldiers Councils.

I digress, to show how things get distorted. Forty years later a Richard Kisch was writing a book (The Years of the Good Soldiers) purporting to show how brave the British Communists were in war and how valiant in resisting conscription in peace. To attempt to prove this crap, he phoned me out of the blue. I had never heard of him but it transpired subsequently he was the father-in-law of a minor journalist who closely collaborated with a bitter opponent of mine. He asked me if I had ever met Brendan Behan. I said I had met the novelist once, in company of many others, when he was released from prison for his involvement in an IRA bombing campaign but knew nothing more about him. He asked if I had anything to do with the Cairo Parliament. Many so-called researchers confused the ‘Parliament’, a debating forum, with the much later strikes and councils. I explained I hadn’t — it had happened before I was ever in Cairo and probably not one of the people concerned remained in Cairo by the time I was there. That was all I said.

On the strength of this information he wrote his account, audaciously thanking me, “an Anarchist writer” (he wouldn’t mention my paid occupation, that was for “real workers” i.e. CPers) for my help, in an introduction. He wrote that I had been involved in an IRA bombing campaign; gone to prison but been released on condition of joining the Army; had sought political refuge in Common Wealth (about the unkindest cut of all) which had formed the ‘Parliament’, and had tried to form soldiers councils to sabotage the war effort ‘the way the Anarchists did in Catalonia’ (real Stalinist malice). This farrago of nonsense was later supported by Philip Sansom, whom he seemed to have consulted, and was presumably deliberate distortion. I asked the publishers to retract, but they would not without a solicitor’s letter. The wretched Kisch went missing when he feared a libel action, which someone had previously assured him I would not bring. Nicolas Walter, the managing director of the Rationalist Press Association, and Sansom and his cronies crowed derisively how I had muzzled poor Mr Kisch and so much for my belief in free speech.

The issues debated by the much earlier Cairo ‘Parliament’ foreshadowed the coming event of a Labour Government, when Common Wealth (which ran it) melted away overnight in its sun (though the Tory-Fascist GHQ had thought it dangerous). It had nothing to do with the situation that developed in 1946 throughout the Middle East, when Labour Government was in power at Westminster. What happened in 1946 was a wave of strikes, not a debating society on political issues.

The UK newspapers gave little prominence to the strikes for demob. So far as I know, only a couple of paragraphs appeared in the home press, though anybody with cursory knowledge of how the Army worked must have known, as officers insisted, that there was in the military sense no such thing as the word ‘strikes’ in the industrial sense: it was mutiny.

The mutiny, if that is really how one should describe it was triggered off in an atmosphere some years in time and light years in atmosphere from the optimistic and loyal Cairo ‘Parliament’ which was concerned with the better life after the war socialism would bring about. It was now 1946 and supposedly the better years after the war with socialism in power! Everybody was sick and tired of the Army and excuses for being in it had run out. Those who had been held back from actual participation in the fighting were even more bitter than those who had been fighting and were due for earlier demob and none too happy when told they should think themselves lucky.

This was especially so as the majority of people in such a position had been strong anti-fascists, and the Army officers in Cairo at the time appeared to be fascists. This may be accounted partly by the fact that the professionals, who had served in Palestine, were anti-semitic and pro-Arab as far as rich Arabs went but despised ‘wogs’. They also hated the new Labour Government, and looked down on the ‘common soldiers’, contrasting them with the well-disciplined German prisoners of war. Almost the only exceptions were among the non-career officers.

When there was an announcement that fewer boats could be spared for demobilisation purposes, and that it had to be slowed down anyway because of resettlement difficulties at home, an unofficial meeting in Ezbekiah Gardens in the centre of Cairo, which even got transit camp soldiers out into the open. We decided to send a respectful enquiry to GHQ at Kasr-el-Nil, composed of a few soldiers making legitimate enquiries of welfare officers before any protest action was taken.

A sympathetic non-career officer explained that front-line service was still needed in Greece, Palestine and Malaysia, as well as holding down liberated territories against the Russians, and that was why demob was held up. It wasn’t a question of punitive action, except perhaps against the sort of riffraff that had been shipped out to the transit camps. They would be kept out of England for some time, but all decent soldiers could reckon the Government would get them home as soon as replacements came.

This, conveyed back to the next Saturday meeting at Ezbekiah Gardens, caused an uproar. One after another got up to call for action. Those in the ‘decent’ category protested at the idea they were going into battle again, hardly to oppose Nazism which they were supposed to have been enlisted to fight. I got up on behalf of the ‘riffraff’ to say if this was how a ‘sympathetic’ officer viewed us, one could hazard a shrewd guess at what the fascist type thought of us. Were we out here to be transported slaves? I got carried away with my own rhetoric, but that’s an occupational hazard of speaking and never did any harm.

There was still hesitation as to what to do and when someone put forward a resolution about writing to MPs and it got carried I started a separate group, making no secret of my own position. One of the active fighters in this group was a squaddie named ‘Ginger’ Foran (it must have related to his verve, not his hair), formerly a Republican (De Valera brand) who later emigrated to Australia. Another in the group, Mick O’Callaghan, was someone who had come along to one of the camp meetings I used to have with the intention of disruption, but, though I never was much of an orator, stayed to agree with every word. He became the first to raise the question of Soldiers Councils.

We learned that Royal Air Force personnel in the Canal Zone and in other parts of the Middle East had stopped work in protest at the same news conveyed even more tactlessly to them (the reference to ‘riff raff’ was misheard as ‘RAF’). We had no contact with the airmen, who were in isolated airfields. I suppose it was confined to ground staff but without them the planes could not move. We convened another meeting and this time a strike was agreed on. Mick put forward the plan of a meeting to co-ordinate activities, composed of councils from every unit serving in Cairo and the Canal Zone. Though it was agreed to suspend all drill, rosters and work, we could not get the majority to agree not to do guard duties. They were under the impression that the Egyptians would break into garrisons and kill them if they did so.

There was considerable unrest in the main cities but nobody outside our small group would listen to the idea of making common cause with Egyptian civilians. Any deficiencies in aims or organisation were made up by the type of enthusiasm unleashed by VE and VJ days, the feeling that the years of war were at last really over and the type of joy in liberation shown in Europe. Our tyrants had been blander, partly because they had been forced to be, but they were not loved better for that.

For weeks formerly arrogant young officers found themselves insulted and even attacked, and some took to going round the streets only by car at the expense of H.M. Government, rather than be observed in Army jeeps. GHQ was scared out of its wits fearing revolution, though with no civilian backing it was not on the cards. Staff officers even condescended to address us, largely on the theme of how ‘our’ Labour Government was threatened by our actions, and though we were letting it down, surely we did not suppose that it was going to let us down. A few did fall for this line. Another, more convincingly, told us, “‘You don’t suppose it’s us so-called militarists who want you in the Army? It’s a bad time for us as well as you — we want to get back to real discipline and to the ways we’re accustomed. The damned socialist bureaucrats make us take you, and have you, but if it were left to us we’d send you home tomorrow and good riddance”.

Though few believed this, he proved to be speaking the truth, as ultimately peace-time conscription was ended once the Tories were back in power and there was no need for Labour reformers to ‘prove’ their patriotism. The ‘so-called militarists’ reverted to the skilled militarist professional army. The German POWs were in an anomalous position. By this time they had been put into regular slave labour units, often controlled by the Pioneer Corps. Even more than the British soldiers they longed for repatriation, but they felt hardly in a position to go on strike, and they had no orders as to what to do if nobody turned up to guard them. So their own NCOs took command and they carried on their duties, even driving trucks through the town in a disciplined manner that won the admiration of the officer class. As a result, it was more than ever determined not to part with them a moment too soon.

In November 1946 there were stoppages in Tel-el-Kebir followed by Port Said, Suez, Abbasia and Cairo. From being Saturday-only strikes — when the meetings were held — they had become general. Still there was no attempt to get local support, while at home the House of Commons was put off with vague statements: ‘everything was again normal.’

There was no real contact with the RAF where the strike was soon led by a group of Communist Party members, especially Aircraftsman Cymbalist. I ran him into him years later, running a small buckle manufacturers, a bit shaken by his experiences. They had more difficulties than we. It was easy for the Army to threaten detention or the dreaded transfer to the chunkies, or to appeal to tradition. The RAF could neither transfer nor use other deterrents bar discharge or severe penalties. They proposed instead to move base, a move prevented by the Tel-el-Kebir disturbances. The combined RAF and Army came down heavily on the strikers at Tel-el-Kebir and Suez. Several dozen NCOs and an unknown number of squaddies were arrested and charged, but in Cairo the strike went on.

It was finally ended by Garrison HQ in Kasr-el-Nil assuring us all that release dates would be restored. I don’t know if there was any pressure outside the Middle East but that was the main demand. They explained that National Service was going to be introduced in which 18 year olds would serve for a fixed period of time. Meanwhile demobilisation would proceed according to numbers to be issued. They hotly denied anyone had spoken of ‘riffraff’, saying we had misheard “RAF”.

Many units went home for demob right away. Even those of us on the outcast list were assured that we would go into normal units immediately and all service taken into account, which had never been expected. Entitlements of leave and demob when due would be restored.

The soldiers councils only lasted two months. It was exhilarating while it lasted — almost a foretaste of workers power. One can see why it has been glossed over by journalists and distorted by historians, even confused with the debating society of a few years before. There were no martyrs in Cairo so far as I know, though it is true the Army has ways of hushing these things up. Some of the RAF were charged and received enormous sentences but in almost all cases they were not confirmed, or cut drastically.

It was decided a policy of forget and forgive was the most expedient. There was no victimisation in the Army. An adjutant at Kasr-ele-Nil looked into ‘individual grievances’ which he conceded, but was unable to rectify. As a result of my grievance I was even granted a month’s local leave in Palestine, others receiving similar douceurs. I think they thought we were being mollified. It was an unusual ending for something that had been described as mutiny, and a great feeling to find the awe in which we were held when there was nothing more we could do anyway!

Bounty on the Mutiny

When I returned from home leave in 1947, which followed on the additional local leave I had previously had, I found I was posted to a regular Pioneer Corps unit that had arrived in the Canal Zone near Ismailia, and for the first time was expected to take up regular Army duties. It was somewhat of a climax after the heady days of soldiers councils, for others as well as me, but ‘normal service had been resumed’, or as far as we were concerned, started.

While home, Roz had begged me to finish off normally without getting into any more trouble. I had already faced two court-martials, and she felt I would I never get out. There was, however, one more incident in which I lost my temper with a fairly obnoxious garrison major and hit him. In for a penny, in for a pound: I also put the boot in. I had been several times unjustly convicted but on this occasion I was acquitted, so I can fairly say justice was done. I therefore decided to play it a bit cooler, though I became what is known as a barrack room lawyer.

Professional officers sneer at a soldier who takes up the problems and wrongs of his comrades. They think these should be referred to the welfare officer or the padre, and sometimes one or the other can actually help, but usually even then not unless the soldier has been told what to say and how to say it. It is something like being a shop steward, though one can only go so far. Nobody has ever paid them tribute yet it was not the qualified lawyers from the Inns of Temple, but the so-called barrack room lawyers who kept the flame of liberty alight in the Services through its darkest years.

All that happened to me as the result of constantly taking up cases, sometimes as ‘soldiers’ friend’, and playing a fairly active part in the councils when they existed, was that I was made a corporal. Majors did not want to disgrace court-martial officers by having to deal with a smart-alec private. I do not think my promotion (I jumped lance-corporal) was for soldierly qualities or loyal service, unless perhaps someone saw something I missed. It seemed it was, like the time I got released from Stakehill, a case of bounty on the mutiny.

The Army was in a virtual state of war with the Jews in Palestine when Ernest Bevin, having stated firmly he was determined to hold on to the colonial mandate, suddenly abandoned it in the face of terroristic attacks by a section of Zionists. The forces, who had no real interest and no ideological excuse for being there, were totally disillusioned with the whole set-up. There were anti-semitic songs going round about ‘The holy but now hostile land’. It did not affect us, now in Moascar, except that a group of deserters known as the Schofield Gang were active buying and selling arms, while in Cairo itself many local Jewish agents were buying arms from Egyptian and British soldiers alike and smuggling them over.

I did my best to persuade people not to become involved. For a few quid it wasn’t worth it, though very tempting for soldiers who had been rebuffed for years or whose services had been devalued by detention. One elderly civilian I had often met in town, known as Weizmann though this may have been an alias (he was not the Jewish leader, later President), in the local newspaper offices and in Groppi’s (a centre for ice cream and intrigue), proved to be one such agent. He was sentenced to twenty years in a desert fortress. Though old and frail he escaped after a week, it was said by overpowering his guards and making his escape through the desert into Israeli-held territory. I can only assume that he had suddenly produced a cheque book which made his guards helpless. Soldiers, though, were less likely to be so agile.

What was making headway now amongst soldiers was the Communist Party. The cold war was beginning, sympathies switched to them. Troops coming back from Greece were particularly susceptible. It was hard for me to be both cautioning people against getting involved with arms trafficking to Zionists, and to be also attacking State Communism, yet trying to differentiate oneself from the Establishment. I was a voice literally in the wilderness. It was the more humiliating because one could do nothing else and some officers thought the rank of corporal might be having its effect. Fortunately, as National Service was beginning, my services and those of almost all in my position were no longer required. They did not want us corrupting a new start.

National Service, for a fixed term of two years applying to all eighteen year olds, was now in effect, though demobilisation of the old conscripts had not been completed. The first peace-time conscription was the militia call-up in 1939, which had brought in the twenty year olds allegedly for a definite period, in practice for six or seven years, and had been superseded by the indefinite all-round call-up. But National Service did not last, unlike on the Continent. The Labour politicians loved standing in civilian clothes and getting saluted and felt it would be unpatriotic to abolish it though the Service chiefs felt it was more trouble than it was worth. Finally, the Tories abolished it and reverted to the skilled professional army.

I sailed on the “Otranto” from Alexandria to Southampton, and was demobilised at Aldershot with a good character reference. It had been upped from ‘Fair’, which is almost the lowest category and had been static for years, when the company commander realised this was a nonsensical grading for someone upped to acting sergeant, and cast an unfavourable light on the commanding officer. Not that it ever mattered in the slightest.

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© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).