Off to Foreign Parts
Somewhere in North Africa – 1943. Despite the desert heat it was important that military discipline was maintained at all times. Here Jack is involved in a particularly arduous bit of boot blacking.
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In early March I was posted abroad after getting clearance from the station. I moved to West Kirby to be fitted out. One of the sergeants on that camp was one I knew as a PE Instructor at Cranfield. I asked him “What is the destination?”. He said “I can’t tell you but you’ll be alright”.
We were kitted out with army battledress and puttees. On the Sunday morning we went by train to Avonmouth Docks and boarded the ‘Rangitati’ – in peace time a New Zealand meat ship. The ship was packed like sardines; some slept on the floor, I slept on a table. We moved from Avonmouth about midday on the Sunday. We eventually arrived at Gourock on the Clyde. For days we seemed to be heading for America, but then must have turned and eventually we came to the Med and could see lights on the Spanish shore.
Our ship was the leading one, behind us were the ‘Windsor Castle’ and many more. We had come on to the top deck to get exercise and fire drill. I stood and watched the flying fish and any other life in the water. The night before we docked – actually it was about 2am – we were told to put our lifejackets on and be prepared. We did not know what was happening but were eventually told that the danger had passed. The ‘Windsor Castle’ had been attacked with many casualties.
We docked at Algiers at about 9am. After disembarking we had to march to the transit camp about 4 miles away. The rest of our mob had rifles. Pearson Laidlaw and I took it in turns to help someone else. When we arrived at the transit camp thousands were waiting in queues up to 2 miles long and when you got to the cookhouse all you could have was a cup of either cocoa or soup. That night we slept on the beach in a bivouac tent. Lo and behold bombs dropped on the beach that night.
En route to Casablanca, March 1943.
Next morning we marched to Algiers railway station and boarded a train. There were slatted seats and backs the length of the carriage with about of forty of us to a carriage. We hard biscuits and to get a drink of tea we waited until the train stopped and mashed tea in big drums with water from the boiler.
We were on that train for 5 days and 4 nights. Time was not a factor with that train – sometimes we would stop for 2 or 3 hours at a time. the train went through the centre of villages and towns. Many places come to mind such as Oran, Fez, Oudja and Sidi Bel Abbes, the French Foreign Legion HQ.
We arrived at Casablanca station in the morning. The United States Air Force had many stations in the area and they brought covered wagons to take us to this unit 145MU, Cazes Airport.
The bottom side of the camp was lines of US tents, probably about 130, in rows of 10 – mine was E9. The Americans had prepared a meal for us – it was great after all that hard tack.
The top side of the camp was a football pitch and a concrete stadium and that was where we went to eat out meals. We came under the US and so had their type of food, i.e. peanut butter, margarine etc.
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An example of the luxurious accommodation provided for our young National Servicemen – Jack outside his tent at 145 Maintenance Unit, Cazes Airport, Casablanca.
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It was our job to build Spitfires, Hurricanes, flying boats and some Typhoons. The aircraft came in crates; the fuselage in one, the wings etc. in others. We worked on a production line basis – I was in charge of one section.
After about six months the technical adjutant asked me if I would go into the workshops, which I did. I made tools and repaired the smaller mobile engines. We had flying boats which had several motorbike type chains needing half links. I made a small jig, drilled the holes for the correct length, case hardened it and went into production. I must have made hundreds.
Once the Typhoons came they found there was no spanner to tighten the propeller. I went over to the American side of the camp and made a spanner using their equipment.
When we had an opportunity we went into Casablanca – a lovely city. Everything was very costly – a boiler suit could cost up to £50. I had many of the tasty pastries they made.
In case you don’t recognise this football ground, it’s in Casablanca, North Africa and the goalkeeper is none other than Madeley Local Studies Group’s very own RAF Corporal 1020022 Jack Smart, photographed in November 1943.
Jack was playing for the RAF Select Eleven against a Moroccan Select Eleven, in a charity match which raised £835 for the French Resistance Fund.
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I was soon footballing in the inter-section matches, many different teams from the area. I remember playing a Spanish team and the trainer was a lady. On 11 November 1943 I played for an RAF select eleven against a Casablanca select eleven. They had some fine players including Ben Barek, known as ‘The Black Panther’, whom Billy Wright described as one of the greats. We lost 1:0 but they could have scored more. The gate of over 8,000 with receipts of £835 (a lot of money at the time) was for the French Resistance Fund. They played matches on Sunday so the following Saturday we went to a banquet. I have never tasted fish like we had as one of the courses. Everything was free, drinks by the gallon. I did not take alcohol so it did not affect me as it did the others – I must have been the only sober one in our party. At the banquet I met Marcel Cedan, middleweight boxing champion of the world. He was later killed in a plane crash on his way to America to defend the title.
A few weeks later I went to Rabat to play against a select team. I was only playing about 20 minutes when I had concussion and landed up in the sick bay of the nearest RAF camp.
After about 12 months, the technical adjutant said to me that the RAF had taken over a place near Rabat for a rest camp and would I go. At first he said no but he said it would do me good. The following Saturday about 40 of us went in a covered lorry. It was a beautiful place – a natural lagoon and a large building which had been a casino in peace time. We were housed in chalets on the beach. It worked out at 13 or 14 to each three roomed chalet. We had to go to the casino for meals. The waiters were all immaculately dressed and treated us as royalty.
The first night the lads went to the nearest cafe-cum-pub about 2 miles away. I went with them. I sat on the ramparts of a disused castle. A jeep came round the corner after about a couple of hours. It was the adjutant. He said “Where are the lads?”. I said “In that cafe”. He said “Go and get them, because someone has raided the site”.
It was getting dark then and the drinks were in. We walked down this road like a flock of sheep. The lads said “We had better go and get some guns”. In the state they were in I said “We must not attempt anything like that”. I knew that someone would get shot. I persuaded them to get cricket stumps and bats.
When we got to the camp the centre room of the 3 chalets had been entered and everything, even mosquito nets, gone. We searched along the beach but could not find anything. The rest of us chipped in and helped to make things easier for those affected.
We were invited to tour the Sultan of Morocco’s palace in the Medina quarter of Rabat. A marvelous thing to see – marquetry, jewels etc. and most intriguing was a room at the top of the building. By the entrance door was an Arab woman spinning wool and at the far end beautiful carpets were draped. We went into the room to examine these carpets and discovered that they actually being made by girls of 4 and 5, working from small coloured cardboard patterns.
I used every rod, line and hook from that casino and never caught a fish. On the Sunday before going back to camp on the Monday, I saw a Frenchman fishing off a rock behind the casino. I asked him to let me fish for him. I caught about 20 fish in as many minutes. He was very excited and a South African soldier passing by said “You’re catching some good fish”. It was absolutely pure luck. The Frenchman wanted me to come back the next day and fish again for him but I was due back at camp.
I fractured my right wrist playing in a section match and six weeks later had notification to have first priority to fly to Algiers in a North African Army versus the RAF match. The MO would not allow me to go – disappointing but I suppose he was right.
One day, Pearson and I were in the centre of Casablanca when approaching us was a lady dressed a Scots plaid skirt. She came straight to us. She was a Scots lady right enough and she wanted to get a meal. We took her to a quiet cafe. She rolled her sleeves up and dished the food out. She came from the Inverness area and had had 6 Free French pilots billeted with her. She had fallen for one of them and had been married at the French Church in London. Her husband was now the Commandant of the Free French Air Force based at Dakar and she was on her way to see him. She would not fly so she had made a similar journey to us. Her husband’s father was ADC to Marshal Petain in the First World War.
She needed a hotel and we eventually found one.. We told her we would come tomorrow to make sure she was safe. We went the next day but she did not like the hotel. Mrs Patton-Bethune, aunt to General Patton, had started a Union Jack Club in Casablanca so we took her there. As soon as we went through the door she came over, but after explaining who she was it was OK. She offered to help and a lady working in the Club offered accommodation.. We went whenever we could to see if she was alright. She was a stranger in a strange land and we looked upon it as our duty.
The US Army had taken over a cinema called the VOX and we were able to take her. We managed to get soap and toiletries for her needs. Her sister Mabel was married to Max Aitken. After about 6 weeks she arranged a boat trip for next day. The last time we saw her she thanked us profusely and said she was sorry she had nothing to give us for our kindness except a small wedding photograph taken outside the church in London. I had that photo and still keep it. She told me that all she wanted to do after the war was to buy a pony and trap and go round the villages in France. I often wondered how she made out. I regret not making an effort to find out. I think they owned vineyards. I did write a letter to the French Embassy and then threw it in the bin.
I visited any place I could safely – Marrakesh etc.
Towards the end of 1944 about 6 of us were posted to a place called Boufarik, 19 miles from Algiers, a beautiful little village with oranges growing in the streets instead of lamp posts. I anticipated the journey to Boufarik by taking a frying pan, a bag of sand, and iron pot and 5 gallons of petrol. We were not in a carriage but a cattle truck with drop sides. We put our ground sheets on the floor and ate, slept and passed the time away. When the train stopped we would put some sand in the pot, soak it in petrol and light it. We knew we could get eggs on the journey by bartering with cigarettes. I’ll swear the joints between the rails were 3 or 4 inches apart. I also took a football so that we could have a game when the train stopped.
At Boufarik it was soul destroying. Pearson and I sorted (damaged?) Spitfires to see if any parts were any good.
I was invited to play for an RAF team to tour Italy but I declined. I had a medical problem – enlarged thyroid gland (goitre) so I thought it would be better for me to get that put right. I went to see the MO at Blida. He said “You will have to see the consultant at the RAF hospital in Algiers”. I saw the consultant and he said ‘I will not operate out here, you will have to go to the UK”.