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Kids Behind Barbed Wire

Kids Behind Barbed Wire

By mudswimmer

Some years after the war, my mother, sister Hazel and I lived in a small transit camp at El Ballah about a mile from the Suez Canal. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by British soldiers. Whichever direction you looked, there was nothing but flat hard sand and the occasional ship passing by on the Suez Canal. For adults in the camp, it must have been sheer hell and the only thing they had in common was a longing to be anywhere but El Ballah.  For us kids, however,  it was fantastic. We only went to school in the morning and, in the afternoon, were allowed to swim in the canal. We lived in shorts or swimming trunks and only tidied ourselves up on Sundays.  I could spend hours just watching the cargo ships and passenger liners passing up and down the canal and dreaming about what it would be like to work on them. The area had once been a huge shallow saltwater lake which filled with water from the Red Sea and shrunk at certain times of the year.  The sand there was still full of tiny seashells. Many biblical scholars now believe that Moses led his people to the promised land through El Ballah and that the ‘sea crossing' took place just to the north of the camp.

Our mother worked as the camp teacher but the school was for small kids. Our school was about 20 miles south in a large military camp close to the town of Ismailia on the shores of Lake Timsah.  Timsah is Arabic for crocodile but I never saw any. Lake Timsah had a real beach and there were some sail boats which we could use. We would travel to Ismailia in a canvas-covered three ton lorry or a small jeep with wooden benches for seats and there were no seat belts. Once aboard the lorry, the tailgate was bolted securely and you kept away from it in case the driver braked suddenly. Sometimes the drivers would let us climb through and sit up alongside them as there was little or no traffic on the desert roads.  I even got to drive the lorry though my feet could barely reach the pedals.  Occasionally, the military police would pull us over because they were bored and we would scoot back to our seats so the drivers would not be put on a charge. On one occasion, we were stopped because a film was being made. It was called  The Cairo Road and was about drug smuggling. The two main stars of the film, Lawrence Harvey and Eric Portman, were standing by the side of the road as we passed by. 

The road between the two camps ran alongside the Suez Canal, a railway line and smaller canal. The small canal was known as the Sweet Water Canal and had been dug originally to bring fresh water to the men excavating the main canal. If there was one rule we never broke, it was to swim or enter the Sweet Water Canal. The water was anything but sweet and contained many life threatening bacteria. The locals may have bathed, laundered and defecated in it, but the Europeans had to avoid it like the plague (which it probably carried). In contrast, the Suez Canal was quite safe with a slow current flowing south from the Mediterranean. Another rule we never broke was to stroke stray dogs, especially when they were foaming at the mouth.

The highlight of my life in Egypt was a visit by lorry to the Pyramids and the Sphinx many miles away at Gizeh. I remember going right into the centre of the Great Pyramid and climbing up the large sandstone blocks outside. The Sphinx was practically buried in the sand, and Cairo was just visible on the skyline. Visiting Egypt forty years later, I was amazed to see that the city and its slums had spread until they were just a stone's throw away. The camel drivers and souvenir sellers, however, were just the same. Even as I write this, someone will be shouting at some Brit, ‘Hello Johnnie! You want to buy dirty postcards? You want my sister?  Where you live in England? Arsenal? Sheffield Wednesday?'

Once a month, a library came from one of the larger camps and we could also order books from the UK. One book I remember was ‘Scouting for Boys' by Lord Baden-Powell. From it, I learnt how to track footprints in the sand and how to work out which way a bicycle was being ridden from its tyre marks. A wobble will produce two tyre tracks which gradually merge in the direction in which the bike is travelling.  I discovered how to carry secret messages in a cleft stick and how to hide when you have to spy on people. Did you know that liars always walk with their feet splayed out. What a book! The man was either a genius or a complete nutter.

But It wasn't always paradise. One of the teachers in our school was a popular American nun called Sister Anthony. One day, an Egyptian entered the school with a gun, she asked him to leave quite firmly and he shot her dead. At about the same time, a Major living on the camp took his family on a shopping trip to Port Said, a town at the entrance to the Canal. They were attacked by a mob and, although the family escaped, he was murdered and dragged through the streets.  This was one of Britain's ‘forgotten wars' in which many soldiers and civilians lost their lives, and not always at the hands of the locals.  We often made friends with the camp guards and I remember one in particular. He used to give us comics and make jokes.  When an official vehicle approached the camp entrance, he would lift the barrier and cry. ‘To your posts! Here comes the stage coach from Deadwood City! Watch out for them Indians!' One night when he was off duty and drunk, he stumbled into the barbed wire of the perimeter fence. He ignored the commands of the young guards sent to investigate, and believing him to be an insurgent, they shot him. The two guards had to guard his body that night until an ambulance came from another camp. Later, they told us what a terrible experience it had been for them. We missed him.

My hero in the camp was a prisoner of war whom we called Armenian Joe. He managed the soldier's canteen and shop and lived in a small room to the side of the building.  Some evenings we would sit outside his room and listen to his tales about the war. He had served in the German Navy and had been shot in the leg. On special occasions, he would show us the bullet wound and we would gape at it in awe.  Armenian Joe was a kind man, generous with his time and money. We always felt safe in his presence and he was the closest I ever got to having a father.

But the main purpose of this trip into the past is to tell you about some of the things we kids would get up to. There was a gang of us and the girls could join in as long as they didn't want to play kiss chase.  I cannot imagine what today's Health and Safety laws would make of some of the things we did. As a guide to our activities, I've used some of the rules we had to obey; we must have broken every one of them.

Children should be protected from the sun and wear suitable footwear


What a sensible rule, for the daily temperature could reach 46°  and soldiers often died of heat stroke. In India, Europeans wore pith helmets (topees) which made them look like mobile mushrooms, but they weren't issued in Egypt, so we ignored it. As for the footwear, well if the locals could shuffle around in bare feet, then why not us?   Walking along the side of the Suez Canal, I slipped down the sloping concrete edge and cut my foot on a piece of broken glass. As I hobbled back to the camp, I made an interesting discovery. At first, the blood came pouring out of the cut but within a few minutes it had completely stopped as if nothing had happened. Our feet must have become very hardy for a deep cut to heal so quickly.

Children are not to interfere with military activities


I'm not quite sure what they thought we would do. I know that we changed the direction of signs around the camp in order to confuse visiting military personnel, and sat in the trees firing catapults at the soldiers on parade, but apart from that we generally kept out of the way.  There was, however, one area of the camp that fascinated us. Two disused aircraft from WW2 lay close to the perimeter fence at the back of the camp, and were used for training purposes. Wearing heavy kit and rifles, the soldiers would climb in and out of them whilst being barked at by a sergeant major, whose surname, incidentally, was Major. The aircraft with their torn fuselages were off limits, but that didn't worry us, and we spent hours climbing all over them, sitting in their cockpits, moving levers and twiddling knobs. Invariably, we would be chased away and fled like rats across the desert and back to the camp.

The wrecked planes inspired one of the most bizarre things we ever did and almost ended in disaster.  We built our own plane, a glider,  from fruit boxes and sheets of plywood for the wings. Our flying machine had two wheels and a tail plane, and I have never forgotten the day it was launched from the sloping roof of the hospital. I don't remember why we used the hospital roof; perhaps it was an insurance policy?  And why I was chosen to be the pilot?  The plane was supposed to slide down the roof and glide gracefully to earth. Unfortunately, it just slid over the edge of the roof and plunged to earth where it buried its nose in the sand.  I was catapulted out but the sand was soft and deep and cushioned my fall.  After that unsuccessful maiden flight, we switched from aeronautical engineering to show business. We converted our aircraft into a Punch and Judy stall, and put on a show for the little kids.

Children will not fraternise with the soldiers or civilian staff.

Now this one was really unfair. I know we fired our catapults at the soldiers but they were really good fun and taught us lots of interesting skills which we didn't get at school. For example, they showed us how to cheat at cards, how to load a rifle, and which pedals to use when driving a three ton lorry. We also learnt how to pronounce important Arabic words and phrases and the gestures that should accompany them. The Sudanese workers were particularly friendly and taught us how to play native drums and finger drumming techniques.  I must have driven my mother mad practising them on the dining table. Then there were the Captain Marvel comics which the soldiers gave us. Captain Marvel put Superman in the shade as he didn't have to hide in a phone box or wear underpants outside his jump suit. No, Captain Marvel just yelled SHAZAM! and his clothing changed by magic and he flew to rescue of the World. There was Mary Marvel for the girls and there was Captain Marvel Junior who, as we were reminded in every edition, was ‘just a poor cripple'.  When surprised by a villain, Captain Marvel would shout ‘Holy Moly!' and that became our war cry; we even used it in church instead of ‘Amen'.  A court case by the publishers of Superman put Captain Marvel out of business, but the artists were all recruited because their work was superb. I can still see those piles of Captain Marvel comics lying around the soldier's tents. Today, they are worth a fortune.

Children are not to enter certain buildings without permission.

Now that was like waving a red rag at a bull. We explored every inch of that camp and any buildings near the Suez Canal. We discovered all sorts of interesting things when no one was around. I remember we broke into a room above an assembly hall and discovered a cache of maps. They were all stamped Top Secret and looked jolly interesting so we nicked a few to swap for marbles at the big school in Ismailia.

Children must be accompanied by an adult at the camp cinema


Well, that was a non-starter. The camp had a cinema close to the main gate and films were shown two or three times a week. We would sneak in for free, and at the end of the programme, collect up all the empty bottles which the soldiers had left littering the floor. The bottles had a deposit of one piastre (1p) on them and an agile scavenger could make a tidy bit of pocket money. At the start of the show, I would go up to the projection room and put on the one record in the cinema's collection. It was a rousing march called Semper Fidelis (Always faithful) by the American composer John P. Sousa and I handled that record as if it were gold dust.  By law, the cinema had to play the Egyptian national anthem and display a picture of King Farouk on the screen at the end of the film. I must confess that the soldiers did not treat this with the respect it required and sang a rather bawdy song in Arabic to accompany the anthem.  We picked up the words very quickly.

Children must be supervised when swimming and behave themselves


Yes, yes, we know all that. Now what we really liked to do was dig large holes and cover them with pieces of cardboard and a layer of sand.  Then, it was great fun watching people walk along the beach and disappear suddenly into our hole.  Or, we would get some little kid to volunteer to sit in the hole while we covered him with sand. ‘You will dig me out afterwards, won't you?'  We didn't and just sat hurling rubbish or fruit skins at the strange little head sticking out of the sand. 

There were always one or two objectionable older kids who would pinch our drinks while we were out swimming. The best solution to this problem was to fill our glasses with a certain fluid that is also a pale yellow but tastes nothing like lemonade. Then, when the thieves helped themselves to it, we just couldn't help laughing as they gulped it down and spat it out in disgust.

Children are strictly forbidden to swim across the Suez Canal.

Even the soldiers were forbidden to do this because the other side of the canal was not under the British mandate, and it still contained mines laid during the recent war.  A little thing like that didn't stop us and we regularly made excursions to the other bank and make rude gestures, and used some of those important Arabic phrases, to the soldiers who shouted angrily at us to return.

When these escapades were brought to our mother's attention she sent us to the camp chaplain or to the commanding officer to be punished. We were absolutely terrified of the RC chaplain who was intimidating and too fond of drink, but found the camp commandant, Captain Hall, a very decent fellow. The former would rant and rave and threaten us with all kinds of beatings whereas Captain Hall would send us out with his son, Carl, to collect litter. Hazel was very keen on his son, so this was hardly a punishment for her. To avoid the priest, we begged our mother not to send us to Captain Hall, and of course she did.  Later, he was sacked from the Army, but that wasn't our fault.

Children are to keep away from ships passing through the canal.

Now what they had in mind was the danger of our being sucked into the propellors or injured by the wash which followed a ship up the canal.  But if we saw an American naval ship heading our way, there was no stopping us. ‘Give us some gum, chum!' we would shout as we paddled in the water, and be showered with sweets from those generous Americans. Occasionally they would shout ‘Hey, where are you guys from?' and in our best English we would reply ‘We are Egyptians. We live here.'  I always wanted a US navy sailor's hat (pork pie), but whenever they threw them, they were sucked under the propellors and, although I searched in the ship's wake, they never resurfaced.

Our most exciting day was when all the traffic on the canal came to a halt because of a collision to the south. Ships moored up to the side of the canal with large hawsers and gangways were lowered for the benefit of crew members who wanted a swim. It was a heaven sent opportunity and we made full use of it. An American cargo ship, the Cape Race of the Isbrandsten Line, moored almost opposite the camp and we dashed a mile across the sand to inspect it in closer detail. Cape Race was what was known as a Liberty Ship. These cargo ships were built quickly and cheaply during WW2 on the basis that many of them would be sunk by German submarines.  Despite their cheap construction, they survived for many years after the war. Seeing the gangway lowered, we leapt into the water and struck out for the ship. Observing us paddling around at the foot of the gangway, the Captain invited us aboard and we spent an hour or two inspecting every inch of the ship, talking to the sailors and asking loads of questions.  The American sailors were puzzled by our accents. ‘Gee, you kids speak such good English.' This time, however, we did not pretend to be Egyptians and happily accepted their generous gifts of sweets and chocolates before heading back for the shore.  Thereafter, I was hooked on ships and was determined to work on them, which I eventually did.

Now here's an odd little thing. As our father had been a captain in the Pioneers (a labour corps which included two thousand Germans), we were based in the officers' quarters. Sometimes, other children in the quarters would say, ‘Your father can't have been an officer. You don't speak like officers' children. You speak like riff raff.' How mother fretted over her feral offspring when she overheard that remark.  A year later, I was watching a football match in Sheffield and made a comment about the game to some lads next to me. ‘Where are you from then?' asked one of them, ‘Cos you talk like a toff.‘

With the passage of time, Hazel was sent to a boarding school in Cairo to improve her behaviour and become a young lady. But the Suez Canal Zone was not a safe place to live; the British military presence severely irritated the Egyptians who rightly wanted more control over their canal. The camps were being attacked and people were dying. I was sent to a military school in England where most of the boys were orphaned or their fathers were absent. At the military school, I met up with a boy from the camp. When one of the masters discovered that we had lived in Egypt, he made us sit cross-legged in front of each other at an assembly and conduct a conversation in Arabic. Initially, we greeted each other warmly with the usual pleasantries, Salam! Kaifa Haloka? Then we became more adventurous and began to exchange all those important Arabic phrases that we had picked up from the soldiers, plus, of course, the gestures that went with them. Everyone was impressed and our performance was warmly applauded by our audience. If only they had known what we were saying, particularly about the master, we would have been grounded for life.

But after the freedom of a desert urchin, it was like being sent to prison. Wearing heavy boots and an uncomfortable khaki uniform, I shivered in the cold rain and longed for the warmth of the desert sun. Abroad, I had discovered that the British were not universally loved: at school, I was to discover why. I made up my mind to leave that place at the earliest opportunity and go to sea.

Tony Crowley (c) 2010

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21 Apr, 2011
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