1943 -A war story, Egypt 1942 (ch 1)
From the front in Egypt -the first chapter in 1942-Egypt.
The flaps of the tent rustle in the night air. Even now at 10 pm the heat is almost unbearable. Earlier, the tent had been groaning under the pressure of the desert wind that brought hot air and sand through every possible gap. Everything is contaminated by the sand and the heat, especially my emotions, as my mind jangled with the events of the past year and at the thought of what tomorrow would bring. Outside near the mess hall, the transport lorry stands with its tanks already filled by Lance Corporal Jenkins, in preparation for the early morning journey to the harbor of Alexandria. There, tomorrow, I will begin my journey back to South Africa and my parent’s home near Pretoria.
It seems like only yesterday that I left the farm to sign up with the South African Forces that would travel to Egypt to fight the German forces as they attempted to take this North African country and so gain control of the Suez Canal. My thoughts turned to my mother and her concern, as four of her children were part of the South African Forces in North Africa and Europe. How she must worry, especially after her youngest son, Charl, also signed up.
And now I am returning home! How could this have happened in such a short time? How can I, in just 10 months, have experienced so much? From a naïve young girl, just out of school, I am now a veteran of the war, a married woman and going home to have my first child. No wonder I lie awake on my camp bed, filled with joy and fear; with excitement and worry mingling in my heart and finding no place to rest. This is not fair! Does war always escalate the events of life like this?
We left Durban harbor in South Africa, on the Mauretania, renamed “His Majesty’s Transport No.136”, in early June 1941 for our journey to the front. Excitement and apprehension flowed through our veins as we stood at the rails waving goodbye to those on the dockside. Mostly on board were young men, many of whom would give their lives in the desert sands at places like Bardia, Tobruk and El Alamein. The handful of young women, also dressed in fatigues, stood together fully aware of the fact that we were well in the minority and that our work would be less dangerous, as we were to provide support services. At that moment we did not know exactly what we would be deployed to do, but we knew that it would be important, and so we were proud that we could also make a contribution to “the War Effort”.
The events of the journey, the festive feeling of excitement of sailing past Dar el Salaam and then through the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal - all places we had learnt about in Geography classes - and our eventual arrival at the harbor, seems like a dream now. The feeling when Hub Smulders, the very handsome soldier, smiled at me and offered to buy me a drink on that first night, was no dream and as the journey unfolded is was definitely love at first sight. Although he was older and divorced he swept me off my feet with his naughty smile and sense of humor.
Our arrival by train at the base camp in Marioplis near Alexandria had us holding our breath. Would we ever see each other again? The search lights in the sky over nearby Alexandria and the air raid sirens were a grim and dramatic reminder that this was not a summer vacation, but an entry into a warzone! I was placed in the base post office where I would take care of sorting and controlling incoming and outgoing mail. Hub (Private Hubert Henry Smulders) was assigned to transport the troops, as he had a heavy duty driver’s license and also experience in that area. To my relief this was a somewhat safer post than being a foot soldier in the trenches, or supporting the rather outdated tanks that had to meet Rommel’s more modern ones in armed combat. It also meant that he would be in camp more often and we could see each other on the occasions when he collected or dropped troops off there. Because of army regulations in camp we could however, not really be together, except on the occasional weekend when our passes coincided. So the question, which often comes up in war-time, came up with us. Why not ask for permission to marry and then we could be together more often as we desperately wanted to be? Every time Hub left for the front, I could only wonder if he would return. Even in camp, life was uncertain and the bomb that exploded in the Post office one night, destroying all the mail, reminded us that even here, life was lived from moment to moment.
What a great day it was when, in the beautiful Wesleyan Church Chapel in Cairo, we vowed to take each other as man and wife and my brother gave me away in front of a few of our fellow soldiers, some old and some new friends. Our reception was held in the Springbok Club and the South African Ambassador in Egypt and his wife attended. We had even been given a week’s special leave for a honeymoon in Alexandria - air raid sirens and all - but who cared? The hotel where we stayed was the very one that the ex-King of England and Mrs. Simpson had spent their honeymoon!
The war went on and was heading to the big showdown at El Alamein, with the combined forces facing the full force of the German Desert Tanks, when I found out that I was pregnant. To my horror I would have to return to South Africa to have the baby there. This meant separation from the man I loved and the uncertainty that we would ever see each other again. I would also have to have my child on my own, even if I could be assured of the support of my Mom and Dad and the rest of the family. All this does not seem even relevant now as I lie in my camp bed with my mind and heart in turmoil. The voyage back will be dangerous to say the least, with German U-boats sinking ships in the Indian Ocean. Will I make it back home and will I ever see Hub again? He is away doing what soldiers do and I am going home! The future is so uncertain, but then war does that! (Continued on Hubpages; Johan Smulders)