The convoy sailed far out into the Atlantic before turning south. We still didn’t know where we were going but we liked the warmer weather when we got into lower latitudes. I don’t remember sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar so we probably slipped through at night. I do seem to remember seeing some of the North African coast. Even when we reached Port Said we couldn’t be sure we’d be getting off there or sailing on through the canal to the Far East War. With thoughts of jungles, Japs, leeches, snakes, tropical diseases etc we much preferred the idea of staying in Europe.
In the port Egyptian men on shore attracted the attention of young women by calling “Missie” and then exposing their rather large members. The girls seemed more amused than shocked.
It appeared that we really were to disembark and I was in an advance party that was the first ashore. I spent the night sleeping on a pile of kitbags on the quay. During the waiting time I was able to watch a party of wharf labourers. Two men would pick up something very large and heavy and balance it on the head of a smallish man who would run with it. In charge of the gang was a British sergeant who carried a large whip. I never saw him use it but his manner towards the natives was aggressive and bullying. Egypt was still a British colony at that time. No wonder they couldn’t wait to get rid of their colonial masters.
We travelled from Port Said by rail in large freight wagons. The kind made famous during World War I because they were marked as suitable for 8 horses or a larger number of men. The sort also crammed with Jews in Europe en route to the gas chambers. Our destination was Cairo where we went to a depot. I don’t remember ever going into the actual city. From where we were we could see the pyramids but I never went there. At that time they called for volunteers for the Long Range Desert Group. This was an elite unit that had operated behind German lines in the desert. There was no longer any desert warfare so its new mission was to drop small parties into occupied Europe, mostly the Balkans, to liaise with guerilla units. Several of us put our names down and we were due to go to Palestine for parachute training. But the 10th Indian Division was about to go to Italy and urgently needed reinforcements so special permission was given by General Headquarters to remove our names from the LRDG training program. That was another lucky break because I might well have broken my neck jumping into some mountainous region in Serbia or Croatia or have got myself killed.
After a few days in some desert location it was back to Port Said. We were issued with Italian currency notes but this could have been a trick to deceive spies. The ship we boarded, was another P and O liner called the Strathnaver, and it was moored with its bows pointing towards the Suez Canal.
(In 1935 I think it was, I was on holiday with a school party on the Isle of Wight and we went to Ryde to see navy ships from all round the world, including the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee, gathered for a royal review of the fleet. I think it was part of the celebrations for the Silver Jubilee of King George V. It was foggy but we saw a splendid looking passenger liner, the Strathnaver, gliding through the mist.) Anyway we had an uneventful trip and arrived at Taranto at the very south of Italy. The harbour wasn't deep enough for large ships so we moored out in the harbour and went ashore in small boats. This was 1944 and probably early April. My first experience of Italy was that it was cold and there was a flurry of snow.
After a day or two on shore we moved in the back of big trucks to a point halfway up the Adriatic coast just south of Ortona. This is where the fighting had stopped the previous autumn and the Germans were still in Ortona. Our billets were in a village called San Vito Chietino. That was a magical area. There were fireflies, the only place I ever saw them, the Adriatic was blue and beautiful and at night when we were on duty a mile or two away the nightingales sang. I used to feel that perhaps they were responding to twittering sounds coming from our wireless trucks. At first I was in the ELO (express letter office) handling mail but whenever possible during night duty I used to pop into the signal truck and keep my hand in as a morse telegraphist. The blokes who should have been handling that work were happy to let somebody else do it.
A word or two about Morse code which has been obsolete for quite a lot of years now but which was of vital importance for more than 100 years. The inventor, Samuel Morse, in America wanted to find a way of sending signals along the telegraph wires which were spreading. He hit on the idea of allocating a system of long and short signals (usually referred to as dots and dashes) to letters of the alphabet. Where he was clever was in taking into account the frequency of the different letters. The most frequent letter in the English language ‘e’ was given the shortest signal a single dot and the next most frequent ‘t’ a single dash. These signals operated a buzzer at the other end of the line. This was long before speech telephony and was even preferred to it later because it wasn’t subject to the same distortion.
Although we used a standard code you knew who was on the far end because of subtle variations in the length of the dots and dashes and their rhythm so you recognised the hand of operators you worked to regularly.
I expect others did the same but I often guessed ahead. In Italy where we got American weather reports the word precipitation occurred regularly. If you heard p and r you could be pretty certain of what would follow so you could relax and coast through the rest of the word. But I have an uneasy feeling that telepathy may actually exist. There were a couple of occasions when I found myself two or three words ahead and I wasn’t guessing. That was spooky and it threw me. After all these years I can still do morse and I find myself running through the alphabet in my head. I also often find myself running a favourite phrase that had a catchy rhythm – best bent wire best. That was fun especially if done in what was called swung or square morse in which some of the dashes were exaggerated to give it a syncopated effect.
I don’t know whether I can convey that to you but I’ll try using dah for long sounds and dit for the short ones, leaving a space between letters and putting a stroke between words. This is best bent wire best: dah,dit,dit,dit dit dit,dit,dit dah/dah,dit,dit,dit dit dah,dit dah/dit,dah,dah dit,dit dit,dah,dit dit/dah,dit,dit,dit dit dit,dit,dit dah. I can do that quite quickly instinctively but I found the above difficult.
Reading morse at high speed was fairly easy once you became good enough and the limiting factor was handwriting because you couldn’t get it down fast enough. I believe some navy operators were trained to touch type whilst taking morse. Morse’s clever policy of using letter frequencies wasn’t adopted by the first manufacturers of typewriters. A problem with those machines was that they jammed at speed so the makers deliberately adopted a keyboard layout that was designed to slow down typists and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. But, well within the lifetime of my own children, in fact in a relatively few years, speech recognition will improve to the point where keyboards will disappear. next