|The desert viewed from the Dakota en route for Khartoum.|
|Gaston Eve at Camp Mena. Note the trench. This allowed the men to stand in what's otherwise a very short tent.|
|Cairo. Left to right, René Perrot, Bernard Tronel and Michel Huguet.|
Journey To Egypt Via Sudan.
Early one day we learned that we were leaving for Egypt and Libya. That was a big moment because we realised that the first stage was over. We were very happy. It was goodbye to Auvergne and all our tanks, which we had so carefully maintained and cared for.
The day of departure we were up about two or two thirty in the morning. We learned that we were travelling via El Obeid and that the first part of our flight would be very long. The group I left with went to Kaduna to embark in a Dakota of the US Air Force. Like all our mobilisations in Nigeria the route was long. Arriving at Kaduna airport we were shepherded into large well managed tents and this was our first encounter with the superior quality of American services.
We went into a very large room or tent where the Americans had arranged a superb breakfast, which was very novel for us. At three in the morning we were unable to do it justice. There were hams and superb meats, [breakfast] cereals of all kinds, bread, butter, cake, fruit juices (orange, tomato and other kinds) coffee, tea.
Everything was beautifully presented on large tables with pretty tablecloths. We were served by men in black trousers and white jackets. I was a bit ashamed to be unable to do honour to all that was before us and all the effort made to present such a beautiful breakfast for us, but it was three in the morning, it was very American and unfamiliar to us. We left the tables almost as loaded as when we sat down. The coffee was good, the bread also, with some butter it was perfect.
We went to the Dakotas when it was still night to leave on our first day's journey. But there was one problem. We had a right to only one bag up to a maximum weight and we and our bags had to be weighed.
We had souvenirs in our bags along with other effects. The American authorities were very strict in regard to maximum weights and they made us leave many things behind, superb objects in ivory and wood from the A.E.F. and Congo. Objects in wood from Fort Archambault and Fort Lamy and in all sorts of metals from Nigeria, snakeskins as well. It was a hard task to choose from all these things. I had kept all my letters from friends and family, I burnt them!
Finally after a delay the sacks were below permitted weight. We had each kept a little trinket or a souvenir of the long voyage from Pointe Noire to Kano. For me it was a game of dominos from Belgian Congo!
It was exactly day [break] when we left Kaduna for far off El Obeid. I think it was the first flight for all of us. The Dakota was a twin-engine plane. It had a row of metal seats along each side down the length of the plane (The seats faced the interior of the plane). Facing one another, we had many hours to contemplate ourselves.
There was an indicator to tell us when to remain seated and belted. With the seats along each side of the fuselage there was space along the middle. When we were able we moved around inside the aircraft. We went to see the pilot and his radio operator and could look at the desert all around us. Apart from a range of mountains it was nothing but desert. It was very hot and we had some water with us and a snack made at Kaduna.
I don't remember what time we arrived at El Obeid but I think it was two or three in the afternoon.
El Obeid was a brief rest for the pilot and we refreshed ourselves. The heat there was very strong. The airport was just a place to take on fuel. Apart from one well-maintained building of wood there was nothing, just a bar at which we got some refreshments. I don't recall having seen the village of El Obeid from the airport.
We left El Obeid on the same day we arrived but I don't recall where we landed next. I see us at the end (or maybe beginning) of a railway line surrounded by bush. The heat was enormous. The train, which fortunately didn't have [window] glass, was there and everything was well organised. We continued our journey. [ Emile Fray has kindly corrected. It was a landing at Ondurman near Khartoum, then lorry to the camp at Khartoum. Gaston has simply displaced the train journey from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa.]
We arrived at a large military camp at Khartoum in the middle of bush. We were in some small tents. It had not the slightest comfort, but that didn't matter. Our great discomfort was the sand flies from the Sudanese bush. They bit a lot and we just had to bear it.
We were rested at Khartoum for a week or two. The food was dreadful and I think we complained. Now and again we went into the town, which was very far from the camp. My dysentery was always a problem and our stay there must have been less than two weeks because the English doctor I saw at camp sent me to hospital and I came out again in time to leave with my comrades.
When we were at Khartoum our comrade Simon, a big young man of 19 or 20, a great prankster with a big smile, fell sick with a gastro-intestinal infection, He must have died after we left because we didn't attend his burial. He spoke no English at all. He had to face his death [alone] and that was hard for him, so far from home and family, without being able to say or write so much as one little word to them. For long after I thought of him from time to time because we had to just leave him there without a word. It's a shame but our way was always difficult. I've always wondered since if his body rests in Sudan or was returned to France.
My next clear recollection is of us at Wadi Halfa embarking on a paddle steamer of the Cook's [travel] agency, but I don't know if that was before or after another train journey. This part of our mobilisation remains confused. Now having looked at a map, at the moment of writing, I see Wadi Halfa is below Khartoum and I think we left by boat.
The voyage from Wadi Halfa by boat was very beautiful because the Nile is a magnificent river. The Cook's agency's boat was very well equipped and was a great comfort for us. There was a lot to see on the riverbanks, the beautiful monuments of ancient Egypt, great ranges of mountains that looked black, but in general it was desert. The natives were, to me, very handsome because their features were always fine.
After a long voyage by boat we disembarked to take an Egyptian train in which we would remain two or three days because they had very long stops. There was only one line and trains had to pass, so they had to wait at passing places.
The first nights were very humid because we were beside the Nile. The train didn't have [window] glass and compared to Nigeria, El Obeid or Khartoum, it didn't seem very hot. The train stops at stations were difficult. There were numerous beggars, very very poor and in very bad health. They would lean into the train and beg for something to eat or whatever.
On arriving at Cairo we were all a bit poorer than at our departure from Khartoum. But one thing we were made to face in Egypt was that we could not give and give. Egypt was the first country in which I saw so much poverty, beggarliness and sickness. Cairo seemed to me a very beautiful city and I had plenty of time to view the superb monuments. We went to Camp Mena, an English camp, well managed. The camp was at the foot of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. It was in the middle of some desert without the smallest tree. We were four or six to a tent which were erected over a pit we had made in the sand to keep cooler. We ate in the open air but under cover from the sun. As at the camp we had stayed in at Kartoum, the food was mediocre and English.
There was nothing to do because we were waiting to continue our transfer which had as its object rejoining the FFL. The English in the camp were used to the Free French because many of our comrades had passed through before us. From time to time we had permission to go to Cairo or visit the Pyramids. The only distraction at Camp Mena was to play football and in the desert this was a job. Because of the sand we had no lines and that was a blow.
One evening as night was falling someone went amongst our tents to tell us that we must assemble at the NAAFI because there was an officer there who had come from either France or from the north of Africa, who wanted to talk to us. It was Colonel Malaguti, a tank soldier like us. I don't recall the details of what he said but I've a very strong recollection of his evident emotion when he saw us all enter the NAAFI and of the great honour he conferred on us in congratulating us for all we had done since 1940, and his offering us his thanks! It was a special moment because in truth, up to that time, we had been a company that lived in isolation and for my part I knew nothing of what the French thought of us.
Colonel Malaguti must have come from France because he talked of France and all of her misery under the occupation. I recall his great anger in speaking all about France's submission. It was in this that the "En tuer" was born and it was he who said those two words to us. I have a very warm remembrance of that occasion, it was the commencement of the next stage towards our victory. Someone from outside of our company had said "Thanks!"
There was nothing to do at Mena. It had a tram terminus close by the Pyramids, which we often visited. Now and again we would go out sometimes alone other times with comrades to Cairo where some would find a life unknown, for others a life forgotten. Inevitably we were subjected to much commercialism because Cairo had seen many military men before us.
Once or twice I found myself travelling with Lieutenant Michard. I don't recall the exact circumstances but one day I found myself on the tram with Lieutenant Michard and we both stood there. As I've already said, all transports had no [window] glass. While we were at a stop the Lieutenant was leaning with his arm against the side of a window when a hand appeared from outside. I just had the time to see a razor blade slash the strap of the watch on the Lieutenant's wrist and the watch disappear. He also saw but too late! It was a professional because he didn't cut the skin of the Lieutenant's wrist. The tram was [still] stopped and we got down to the ground to pursue the thief but quickly realised it would be a waste of time. We got on the next tram.
We had no tanks and would watch English tanks from time to time. I think some came from a workshop at Tel el Kebir. I remember well the arrival of one English tank (a Matilda or Crusader). The Pilot had mounted on the back to put some water into the radiator. He had just unscrewed the radiator cap and received, right in the face, an explosion of steam that burnt him terribly.
Dysentery troubled me a good deal day and night. I had caught it two days after our arrival at Pointe Noire in October 1941 and even though suffering it permanently, had passed only 8 days in hospital (at Kano). So I went to the camp doctor who sent me to a hospital in Cairo. I was very wasted and very tired and some days after entering the hospital I awoke one morning to find myself unable to talk or make the slightest sound with my voice. I wasn't suffering at all and had excellent care from the French sisters and doctors.
Lieutenant Michard and my comrade came to see me from time to time. I could hear them but I couldn't reply! At the end of two or three weeks the doctor told me that there was nothing more they could do in Cairo and I was to go to Beirut to be seen by a specialist. When Lieutenant Michard came I wrote down what I had been told and he went to ask for information. That same day he brought me my mosquito net, which I had had since my departure from England, shorts, shirt and my beret with my Free French insignia because he had learned that I would be leaving very soon. That was a very special goodbye because we were officer and soldier, united the one to the other. The dysentery had been well looked after and was going better. Apart from the fact that I could not speak I was keeping well.
To Beirut & Back.
The hospital service obtained a transport permit and I went and presented myself to the transport officer. (I think he was called an RTO "Rail Transport Officer") He checked the ticket validity and I embarked on the train for Beirut. On that journey I found that it could be very cold in Palestine. This was a very long and monotonous journey. I can recall the town of Haifa but that is all. It was a voyage through day and night. I found Lebanon more beautiful than Palestine and along the way there was always someone wanting to sell me either something to eat or souvenirs. I had money because I had not spent anything in hospital. The journey through Lebanon along its coast was very beautiful and spectacular because the route of the railroad was beside the sea. Beirut was a very beautiful city and arriving there I went to the hospital that I had to present myself to.
I was given a very comfortable bed in an atmosphere that was fresh and quiet and there were French nurses. I saw the specialist who wore a French officers uniform. He was warm towards the FFL and that was a comfort. He told me my vocal chords were paralysed and the only treatment was rest, an aperitif before each meal, good food and wine. He told me that he thought in time I would be able to make sounds, then bit by bit to speak. He examined me over about the next two weeks or so and I continued to write my responses to what he said to me or to ask for what I wanted. When I started getting well the hospital told me I could go out to town a bit. I went with a sick comrade from Djibouti and we went to see "Gone with the Wind". That was very nice. Another time I went to town to take photographs for my mother.
Beirut was not always a quiet town and I think they had some problems, political or otherwise. The day I went with my comrade from Djibouti to take photographs I heard the sound of a crowd coming along a street and saw the shopkeepers close their shutters. The crowd appeared on the main square. I don't know what had come to pass but at that moment I saw 15 to 20 English soldiers who wanted to move the crowd on it's way. Inevitably the crowd got hit with blows from batons and other things and some were injured and needed help. Morally my comrade and I should have helped them but the situation was impossible, we would have suffered the same [treatment]. We went in the opposite direction.
The doctor told me I would get better in the mountains close by Beirut, in a military convalescence home. I went to Sofar to a large, very agreeable house where we were two or three to a room. It had a games room with ping-pong, billiards etc, a salon and so forth. I always had aperitifs, good food and wine just as all the other patients did. There were two or three Legionnaires as well as the other FFL. Amongst them was a boy who also came from Camberley. I don't know how, but an English "ruban" grenade [Can't translate, says "ribbon" grenade?] had exploded in his hand. It was a shame but his hands were wrecked. He had been wounded in the abdomen, chest and alas he was blind. He was sad about his wounds and had to wait for the end of the war to return home. [Vichy policy was to hand over Free French "traitors" to the Germans in the northern occupied zone]
I passed my time reading (they had a library), listening to the radio and walking. I went to Beirut from time to time to see the specialist and over about two months I heard a very small sound return to my throat. The specialist told me I was getting better!
About another month later I could speak as if I had a very sore throat. The specialist told me it was now just a matter of time. I said to him that I wanted to return to my company and my comrades and eight days later I was en route by train from Beirut to Cairo. Once more a beautiful voyage but also a voyage made with much joy because my life was with the company. Arriving at Camp Mena, I confirmed that the company was no longer there. I think that a comrade had written to me or I met someone in Beirut who had warned me of this.
I went to see the camp commandant (an Englishman) who told me I would have to wait to leave and I felt smothered, I found myself again in the bush and under a tent. Two or three days later I was not well. I had to force myself to eat and I was vomiting. It was very very hot. The food, a "cataplasme de riz" [Can't translate, says "poultice of rice" I think maybe a rissoto?] was horrid. Because I vomited my food I drank some beer but vomited that too. The camp doctor gave me some medicine that helped me.
I went to see the camp commandant to tell him I really wanted to leave soon. I heard that the company was close to Tripoli. He told me I could leave for Alexandria by boat but that would be in eight days time. I feared falling sick again in Cairo. I had been there about fifteen days. The railway line passed close by Camp Mena so I decided to jump on a freight train. On arriving at Alexandria I presented myself to the Transport Officer. Even though I was without papers I was welcomed. I explained that I had arrived three months after my company and that I wanted to rejoin them. The officer at Camp Mena had been right. There was no boat for Tripoli for the next week and I needed patience.
At Alexandria I went to a transit camp. Having a pay book I had no problems. I encountered other FFL who were going to Tripoli. Amongst them were some twenty natives of Tahiti. We stuck together until our arrival at Tripoli. We sometimes met Vichy sailors in Alexandria. Compared with us they were smart and well fed and seemed to have no shame. We used to sneer at them 'What about doing some fighting someday' and that would start it! We had some tremendous fights with them in cafés and on the streets.
All those who wanted to rejoin their units at Tripoli were together on the liner. The Tahitians sang their lovely songs to us. I remember them with great affection. The journey to Tripoli was short but pleasant.
Arriving at Tripoli we disembarked under British command. Every one descended to the quayside, troops of all nationalities; English, New Zealander, Polish, Indian and others. We were stood in ranks and at guard with all our mixture of insignia, berets etc. We marched in ranks carrying our stuff in hand or on our backs to a place where there were a large number of lorries. There were hundreds of us. This had been well organised, and the Free French had their lorries which left on a very long journey.