Chapter 4

AT SEA – NAIROBI – KABETE – CHRISTMAS 1940 AND ADVANCE TO SOMALILAND BORDER.

The following morning we found ourselves with one other ship and an escort heading southwards in a calm and otherwise empty sea. Rumours and “Sit-Reps” were rife and our destination varied from the Middle East, the Far East, England and Kenya. But our rendezvous with a larger convey, under the watchful eye of the R.N., was obviously well planned and by evening we had joined another 11 ships plus escorts. It was an impressive sight as they steamed steadily northwards, making intermittent zigzag changes in direction to evade enemy submarines (Photo SS Franconia).

Reveille was at 0600hrs.followed by breakfast ships clean up and inspection. As additional air defence, our own Double-Lewis Machine Guns were mounted at strategic points and gun crews were on duty throughout the day, while “spotters” were on for a one-hour shifts. Key points below deck were also guarded in order to control troops in case of attack. Apart from those duties there was little else to do and the sunny, lazy days passed with card games, Crown & Anchor, Housey-Housey, reading and PT. There was total blackout at night and I remember standing on the stern in the pitch dark watching the wake churn up the fluorescent phosphorous into dazzling shafts of light. I first met Ken Taylor back there and learned that he was an employee of the City Council and had worked in Electricity House in Strand St. He was also a keen amateur actor and dramatist from England (After the war he became a well known Cape Town Radio and TV broadcaster and producer and a horse-racing commentator).

There was a large contingent of nurses on board bound for Military Hospitals in East Africa. While we were at sea two concerts were arranged and there was some dancing at night on deck. The ship’s band supplied the music and, of course, the canteen was kept very busy (Over a year later I met two of the nurses in Cairo, during a short leave from the desert).The concerts were arranged by the crew with items by various members of the regiments on board. Barney Brinkworth, Jack Anderson and Horace Finnemore were in the adjoining cabin and we had some great parties with the aid of an enthusiastic steward who smuggled in brandies and ginger ale – after a generous tip!

By now, we knew we would be landing at Mombassa, and the last night on board was particularly uproarious. Lt. Jimmy Riddel made his rounds of the cabins at about 1900hrs in an intoxicated state and joined in our party with great gusto. He and Lt. Rees were our Section Officers. Both had served in the 1st World War, and both enjoyed a good party. Despite a cabin full of empties and an enormous hangover we were all ship-shape the following morning as our ship broke away from the convoy, which continued on its northward journey to Egypt. Heading westward for Mombassa we soon had air cover from two SAAF Junkers JU 86’s and then, on the horizon, the tropical, African coast line slowly appeared. A long narrow strip of golden sands, fringed with green forest, Palms, Paw-paw trees and Plantains. Here and there, a red-roofed house nestled among the trees along the shore. Soon we entered the harbour with it’s small fishing boats and Arab Dhows and an aroma of eastern spices permeated the tropical atmosphere. Our eight-day sea voyage had ended and we were sad to leave the glorious comfort of soft mattresses and the cleanliness of ship-board life. So too, ended the tranquility of the sea voyage as we struggled down the gangway to the quay below, sweating and puffing under the weight of our gear. We were marched straight off to the waiting train. The coaches had hard, bare wooden seats and space was minimal. We had to squeeze in somehow and were glad when the whistle blew and the train departed for Nairobi.

Kenya was still a British Colony and Union Jack flags fluttered from public buildings. The African Askaris were very smart in their red, tasselled fezzes, dark tunics, Khaki shorts and navy-blue puttees. There were few white people about in the midday heat – despite Noel Cowards song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, – as our train set off for Nairobi and away from the Coastal tropical heat.

The train stopped frequently and at each stop fruit vendors were soon bartering with the troops. Swahili was a strange new language and the currency was reckoned in shillings and cents.  Notes were from 10/- up to 200/-. As daylight faded we made a long stop at Voi and we were able to replenish our stock of fruit and beer at the station canteen. Troop trains were obviously still a novelty to the natives and they crowded around – wide- eyed and
very black.(More so than our South African blacks). One of our chaps took out his false teeth and the superstitious natives shrieked and scattered until he put them back again. One old man spoke of the 1st World War, remembering his visit to South Africa during the East African Campaign.

Soon after sunset, with the onset of the evening, mosquitoes made their appearance, but, fortunately the train was poorly lit and the gauze screens on the windows kept them out. We were also already receiving our daily dose of quinine tablets to combat Malaria. Sleeping on this dusty, uncomfortable train was almost impossible but I was already getting used to dossing down anywhere and grabbing some sleep, so, despite the conditions, I did doze off.

By dawn we had left the coastal plains and were passing through rolling grasslands and bushveld and there was a fair amount of game along the way. We arrived at Nairobi station at about 0800hrs, and, after a short stop, continued to the railway siding at Kabete, where we detrained and marched about half a mile to our new camp. Kabete was a large, new military camp for S.A. troops and, when we arrived, the 10th Field Ambulance, S.A. Medical Corp, “Q” Services HQ and “T” Services main store were already well established. Our battery, the 5th, settled in on the 5th September, while the 6th Battery continued to Nanyuki and Archers Post. The 1st and 3rd Sections of our Battery soon moved to Garissa to provide anti-aircraft protection at the Pontoon bridge which had just been completed and to Nakuru aerodrome. The section at Garissa was the first to go into action when 3 Italian Caproni planes attacked. One plane was damaged and was then shot down by an SAAF fighter.

On our arrival at Kabete we had erected large tents, which accommodated 13 chaps. My tent mates were:- Barney Brinkworth, Reg Oldrige, Horace Finnemore, Dick Came, Keith Mugglestone, Jack Anderson, Paul Shackleton, Gordon Jolly and Harry Rose-Innes and also Gordon Wilson, Peter Slade, Paul Bisset and Fourie. Our troop officers were now Lt.’s Broster and Riddel, Lt. Rees having been transferred, and the Sergeants were Commerford and Cecil Murray. Later on Trevor Moorhead was promoted to Sergeant and Commerford was transferred to another troop. Major Nick Wessels was our Battery Commander.

The Camp was far from complete and Indian contractors were busy erecting pre-fabricated wooden bungalows. We were destined never to occupy them as we moved out before they were completed. For the next two months training was intense as we went through a daily program of foot, rifle and Lewis machine gun drill. On many occasions we went down to the railway siding to assist with the off-loading of heavy equipment and stores. Another part of our “toughening up” process was the long route marches through the hilly but beautiful country side. Guard mounting was another duty, which became a highly competitive affair, as each Section Commander wanted his Section to be the best. Our preparation
entailed a great deal of extra drilling to smarten us up and a lot of “spit and polish”.

At one stage I felt as though my whole military career would be guard mounting and guard duty, for I was involved in 12 parades in succession. The Camp Guard was a 24-hour duty followed by a day off, which we didn’t mind too much. There was also a 12-hour night guard at Stanley House, the East African Campaign Headquarters and communications centre. This was a night guard additional to the normal guard in order to provide additional patrols around the paths and various buildings in the grounds. Guard rules were very strict and no officer was allowed to bring female company into the area. Needless to say some embarrassing situations did arise much to our amusement.

There were many incidents, which provided a lighter side to our daily army routine. There was the case of the run-away One-Ton Truck that free-wheeled its way down the hillside from the Car Park and landed in the middle of the reeds and mud in the river half a mile away. Two sections manhandled it back on to hard ground and then, with long ropes attached, it was gradually hauled up the hill to the camp. Apart from a few dents it was not very seriously damaged.

While at Kabete, I often saw Eric Sunde (from the office) who was in the armourers store and I was also very surprised one day when I ran across Eddie Hansen. He was assisting in our cookhouse and I couldn’t believe that he had landed in such a situation. His story was that volunteers had been called for to assist the cook. It was supposed to be a cushy job – off every afternoon and lots of spare time. However, he and his pal had not been there long, when the regular cook got into trouble and was removed from the scene. Eddy, who hadn’t much idea of preparing and cooking meals for such a large number of men, really landed in the “cactus” and was working from 0400hrs to 2100hrs every day. When we moved from the camp he was still languishing there. I only heard afterwards how he escaped from that chore. I recall meeting Eddy some time later and he told me that, to get out of the cooks duties, he started burning every meal and turned out some terrible dishes. Finally, the flood of daily complaints compelled the Orderly Officer to report him to the C.O. who had to remove him from the scene.

On another occasion our regiment provided the Guard of Honour at the arrival of General Smuts at the Nairobi Aerodrome.  We endured a great deal of extra marching drill but, on the day, we were well turned out and performed our task efficiently. However, the plane was late in arriving and we had waited from 1300 hours to 1900 hours before he arrived. We were tired, hungry and “Browned off” by the time we returned to camp.

Sporting and recreational facilities at Kabete were good and soccer, hockey and rugby matches were often arranged. Civilian women ran a canteen at the camp and worked untiringly to make our spare time pleasant. Their canteen and reading room was furnished with comfortable easy chairs and there was often a cosy fire. It was a great place to spend a quiet hour, away from the crowd, reading or writing letters. The canteen was a lively and happy gathering place in the evenings.

Many a party took place there and on one occasion Gordon Wilson made a bet that he could drink 8 beers in twenty minutes.  He began well and was keeping up with the clock until number 6, when he had to take a breather and went outside to relieve himself. Unfortunately, he “burped” and most of the beer he had drunk came back and so he lost the bet.

Dick Came’s 21st was another memorable night with singing, laughter and fun and made up for his being so far from home. Swahili “boys” came into the camp every day and the chaps in our tent employed one to do our washing. We called him “Washela”. I had packed in a pair of hair-cutting scissors and clippers when I left home and I soon became adept at “short back and sides.” One day Paul Bisset decided to have a full scalp and, so became the butt of a lot of chaffing. His “kaalkop” took a long time to grow and he was the butt of a lot of chaffing for a long time.

Of course, there was plenty of opportunity to obtain leave and go into Nairobi. The new Stanley Hotel was a popular spot and we often went to the Capital Cinema, where I saw Robert Taylor and Vivian Leigh in “Waterloo Bridge”. The “Continental” Cafe and the soldiers’ canteen served good mixed grills, which we washed down with Kenyan Pale Ale. Indians owned many stores and tailors made a fortune making “Safari Suits” – very smart for wearing to town. Nairobi, by this time, was a soldiers’ town, blacked out and vibrant with nightlife. Torr’s Hotel was another great “watering place”.

Harry Rose-Innes took me to meet a Mr. & Mrs. Burgess (P O Box 1230 Nairobi), who were two very homely and wonderful people and we soon developed a strong friendship with them. They introduced us to the Walmsley and the Ball families, who were also very hospitable and, as they had young daughters and friends around, our attraction was even more enthusiastic. They were all in the Colonial Service and had beautiful homes and influential friends. Dinner was rather formal – after whiskey & soda’s a gong would sound and we would be ushered in to our correct seats. Toasts were always proposed to “King and Country” and we were served by Kikuyu waiters in spotless, ironed Khaki shorts, shirts and red fezzes. After dinner, the men retired to the lounge for port and cigars. Sometimes, Harry and I would set off from the camp and walk across country to visit the Burgess’. On one occasion we were late setting off and lost our way in the dusk of evening and walked into a Kikuyu kraal. The women dashed into the huts and hid while the men appeared to be rather hostile. We gave them a cheery “Jambo” and, in halting Swahili, told them our predicament and the tension eased off. One of the men showed us the way and we decided not to take that chance again.

In Kenya the soft rains occur between October and December. The rainy days made our camp life a little uncomfortable but did not affect the daily round too drastically. However, out in the frontier desert areas, many tracks became impassable which made troop movements to the forward areas very difficult. At last, late in October, our section left Kabete camp and moved to the Nairobi Civil Aerodrome.

We pitched our tents and made a very comfortable little camp outside the perimeter fence. Now the hard labour started for we had to construct 9 gun emplacements with sand bags. Contractors laid down circular concrete foundations and erected prefab huts for the gun-crews to sleep in while we filled sand bags and constructed the gun pits. Thousands of sand-bags were needed and our day began at 0600hrs and ended at 1500hrs with breaks for breakfast and lunch. It was strenuous back-breaking work but we were young and were soon bronzed, tough and fit. Shortly before Christmas 1940 the job was completed and then we manned the gun positions with 4 chaps – 24 hours on and 24 hours off. Stand-to was at 0500hrs and then one man was on “spotters” duty for 1 hour and off for 3. The guard was changed each evening at 1700hrs (See the photographs depicting the construction work on the gun-pits and the “gang”).

Our tent had become a very happy crowd of chaps and we all fitted in very well with a great deal of laughter, jokes and fun. When we weren’t in Town we were allowed to visit the RAF Canteen inside the ‘drome. It was strictly guarded by KAR infantry who took a great delight in leaping out of the dark night and pointing the bayonet at our stomachs. We would be challenged with a shout, “Halt, who goes there!? Passa-a-word!”, to which we often replied “Ham and Eggs!” In the dark we would see a flash of white teeth as the guard replied, “Passa-a-Ham and Eggs – All’s Well!”

On Friday nights we received a “Brandy Issue” after which we would head for the canteen for an evening of relaxation. The RAF fellows always gave us a warm welcome and their canteen meals were excellent. The roast chicken and grills were our main choice and there was a copious supply of beer. Keith Mugglestone (“Mug”) had his 21st birthday there. That was another uproarious affair and we gathered around the piano and had a noisy sing-song. All the army favorites – Bless ’em all; The quartermaster’s store; Ma, he’s making eyes at me; Ramona; Keep the home fires burning and many others.

Dick Came was not one of the neatest chaps in the tent and was also inclined to be ham-handed when it came to sewing. One afternoon, there was a thunderstorm brewing, and we were all in our tent writing, reading or doing a few chores, like darning socks and so on. Dick had a tear in the knee of his khaki pants so he set about sewing it up. He pricked his fingers and got knots in the cotton, which caused a constant stream of swearing from him and much amusement for us. Finally he gave a triumphant shout and said “There! At last!” – Only to find that he had sewn through both sides of the trouser leg. The air turned blue and we burst our sides, laughing.

That same afternoon there was a terrible tragedy as three Ventura planes took off from the aerodrome. The third plane had just reached a height of about 400 feet when it seemed to lose power and side slipped and dived into the ground. There was a tremendous explosion as a ball of smoke and flame erupted and scattered debris over a large area. There
were no survivors.

While I was away many of my letters, which I wrote home, were kept and filed away for my return. I note in one of them, written on 10th Nov. 1941,that I made an allotment of Three shillings and Fourpence a day, which was half my daily army pay. This money was paid into my Bank account as a savings for my return.

Our section was joined by the 4th Section for a time but they hadn’t been with us long when one of their tents went up in flames and they lost all their kit. They did not stay long and soon received orders to move off to do other duties. Trevor Moorhead was promoted to Sergeant and gave us all hell for a time until he got over the novelty of his newfound power. Some of the fellows made it clear what might happen to him one dark night and he calmed down, though he always remained a bit of a “bastard”. His commands were always punctuated with, “MOVE – MOVE!” “Cooky” Smal, our cook, was an unpleasant character and dished up some rotten meals. He was seldom clean and hygienic himself so there were many complaints. Later on, of course, when we were on the move each gun crew looked after its own rations and we prepared our own meals.

There was always plenty to do in our spare time and we made several trips by truck out to the Ngong Hills. The Game Reserve was on the edge of the Great Rift Valley and there were stacks of game. Large herds of Zebra, Wildebeest, Buffalo, Thomsons Gazelle and Giraffe roamed the plains around the aerodrome and sometimes Lions and Hyena came right up to our huts and gun positions. Every evening the herds moved in around the ‘drome and used to snort and rub up against the flimsy prefabs and, we were often unable to open the door and walk to the gun-pit. We had one fellow with us on the post, Fanie le Roux, who snored louder than the snorts of the buffalo!

So the days and weeks slipped by and Christmas arrived. Harry and I were invited to a dance at Torr’s Hotel with young folk from the Walmsley’s and Ball’s. It was great fun and we returned to camp after 1 o’clock where there was still a party in progress. I was taken out to my post by truck and then at 0530hrs we were up again for “Stand to”. Denis de Villiers and Paul Shackleton were my companions and we sat and watched a glorious, tranquil African sunrise, surrounded by the silence of the African veld and the call of the Eagle and occasional animal noises. Alone with our own thoughts of our distant home and country and our first Christmas away in a strange land. The words of two songs came to mind – “I’ll see you in my dreams” and a humorous one – “Dreamin’ of thee.”

Duties were reduced for Christmas day and as soon as we were given leave, Harry & I dashed off to spend the day with Mr. & Mrs. Burgess. On the way we called in to see the Ball family to share Christmas wishes with them and to toast “King & Country” and “the end of the war”. Then on the Burgess’ home where we felt so “at home” and had a beer or two before lunch, after which Harry and I slept until we were woken to hear the Kings speech from London.

There were many other messages from around the world to the Forces serving Overseas. We had sent telegrams and a Regimental card home with Christmas Wishes and so there was a great feeling of nostalgia in our hearts. The day’s celebrations were crowned by a most delectable roast turkey with all the trappings. Dinner was served by the manservant in the half-light of candles and the Christmas pudding was brought in with a glowing blue film of burning brandy. Soon a memorable day ended and we wearily returned to camp to find the tail-end of a party still in progress. A special dinner had been prepared by the cooks for those who had not been invited out and, although they had celebrated well, they had not been able to enjoy the homely spirit of Christmas as Harry and I had done. We were too tired to join in at that stage and were soon in bed with our own thoughts of a memorable Christmas. New Year followed with a party at the Walmsley home.

The Burgess’ and the Balls were there too and the old year went out with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Just over 6 months had passed since we had left Cape Town and it seemed like years. I wonder how we would have felt had we known that another four years would come and go before we would see home again.

A collections of tour poems and verses and office Christmas party doggerel written by Howard J. Bates