At El Tahag we had our first encounter with what would become in the following years an extension of our bodies and our souls: the nimble, rugged four-wheel drive all-terrain Dodge ambulance capable of carrying four stretcher cases and up to ten seated. There was nothing like it in the British Army. Our training covered the 28 separate basic vehicle maintenance checks for which we would be responsible, plus mastery of the gear-box requiring "double clutching" to change gears up and down; also mastery of engagement of four-wheel drive as needed. There was plenty of sand and space in which to practice.
"Egypt--El Tahag and Cairo.." Charles P. Edwards. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.
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During that week at Tahag we received special training in map reading and desert navigation, neither easy in featureless sand or flat, stony desert. We heard lectures on what goes on underneath the vehicle's hood. With so much sand constantly blowing into all parts, vehicle maintenance, especially lubrication, was vital. A good deal of time was spent crawling under a Dodge with a grease gun. There was driving practice, on both ambulances and motorcycles. There were talks on the organization of the British army and on the medical setup from RAPs (regimental aid posts) to field hospitals.
Scott Gilmore. Chapter Two. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.
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Our training officers are desert veterans and very congenial men. We will move on by the time you are reading this to relieve others ahead. It is strange to see life being lived so near the holocaust. When air raids come rockets are sent into the sky, the color indicating the type of raid. Overhead in the daytime great hawks whirl in the sky and float low over our heads. My ambulance which carries the American manufacturer's number, the British Army license, and an Arabic statement, has four-wheel action which is necessary for sand and soft earth. The gear shift is very different from my Mercury being four speeds plus reverse (way over to the right). There are two brown leather seats forward that pitch up if wanted. Behind them a space of nine feet, two padded benches hinged on either side and four stretchers folded up, a tool box, fire extinguisher, opening-out doors and a let-down step on the rear. The ceiling has two lights, a wire ventilator and fan, and four straps of khaki webbing that hold the outer stretcher handles when all aboard are flat cases (two on the floor, two on the straps). We have had to reduce our equipment to the very minimum on active service which means many items are in storage in Cairo. Can you imagine living, eating, sleeping, washing, writing, thinking and existing in the back of your stationwagon?
Caleb Milne. Chapter Three. I Dream of the Day. Africa 1942-1943. New York: Longman's, 1945.
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One hundred and ten days out from Halifax, on 10 February 1942, Unit 1 reached Tewfik, the port southeast of Suez on the opposite side of the canal, where they were met by Colonel Richmond and representatives of GHQ MEF. They were driven, standing, in six three-ton trucks, with two extra for their luggage, the 60 miles northwest to the British Mobilization Center for the Middle East at El Tahag.
The Mobilization (Mob) Center, which they reached that evening, covered an area that varied in the telling from 30 to 70 square miles---a great, flat, treeless waste of stone and sand, loosely sprinkled with tents. Upon every slight breeze the sand rose and entered tents, clothes, and food, and months later it would be found to have penetrated even sealed packets. Tahag was not particularly different from the deserts to the west and east, but after weeks at sea it came as a revelation both of the desert and of uncomfortable living. "It was constructed to be so uncomfortable in order to make the newly arrived glad to go on out to any place for any purpose," W. W. Phillips said, "and to remind veterans that, however bad their stations were, there was one place even worse."
On arrival at Tahag, the unit was shown its own patch of sand, indistinguishable from others except on a map, where it erected the tents that for a brief while were to make that particular square its home. Straw mattresses were issued, and other facilities, however far away they might be, were considered to be within walking distance. In other tents, near and far there were quite a number of amenities to be found, and for the evening there was the haven of the NAAFI (Navy, Army, and Air Forces Institute) canteen, a circus tent with dim blue lights. Here most of the unit made their first acquaintance with veterans of the desert fighting, and any notions of continuous heroics were lost amid the soldiers' jokes of war's discomfort, boredom, and bloody anguish.
"Every canteen in the Middle East," D. Hyatt wrote, "every front line is made up of men like these: they talk shop almost entirely, because the war now occupies their existence completely. Even when they get leave, there is little to do but meet their old comrades and joke about old times. They are hardy, weather-beaten, and tougher than the conditions to which they have been subjected. They've been through two years of fighting, and they still grin when they talk about what they've been through. They make up in courage for lack of equipment. Sometimes we feel like children talking to them; and yet they are no older than we."
The week the unit spent at Tahag was so busy that several have claimed it was two weeks. First they had to be issued battle dress, tin hats, gas masks, and so forth. Then came further training supervised by Lt. Eric Waller, RASC, who acted in this capacity for all Field Service units to go through Tahag (and ultimately became Major in charge of training at the camp).
"Middle East 1." George Rock. History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956
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El Tahag was to become our Egyptian base camp where we would refit and re-form old and new units.
Among the permanent staff of MOB Center (as it was known throughout the Middle East) were men of vast experience in forming and informing new men in the ways of the desert. Unstintingly these men gave us their knowledge and time. Major Harry Mathews, second in command at El Tahag, went to bat for us time and again when vehicles or equipment were slow in being issued. Captain Eric Waller (then Lieutenant) has guided the instruction of every Field Service unit to arrive in the Middle East. The sun compass, desert navigation, and life in the desert hold few secrets for him. Patiently, fluently, graphically he passed on to us the tricks that one must know in order to live and operate in the Western Desert. The American Field Service is indebted to many officers and men in the British Army, but none has a higher claim on our gratitude than Waller. Captain Parmeter (Staff Captain A) was always at our service.
We reached El Tahag about one o'clock in the morning. The staff was patiently awaiting our arrival, and we were greeted with a fine hot meal (the first since early the previous morning) and then shown to the tents set aside for us. The next morning we plunged in and were engulfed in alphabet soup and "bumph"---the British term for hundreds of forms, at least in triplicate, that must be handed in on every detail, every movement, every piece of equipment drawn. We thought we had been fed agency and department abbreviations by the New Deal at home, but they are amateurs compared with the British Army. But for the Mobilization Center staff we should have drowned under the VRD's (Vehicle Reserve Depot forms) and BOD's (Base Ordinance Depot forms) thrown at us.
War-establishment figures on an Ambulance Car Company called for four platoons with about fifty men to a platoon. With the present personnel we should be able to form but two platoons at this time. The platoon was broken down into six subsections with five ambulances to a subsection. The man power in the subsection consisted of an NCO in charge, a spare driver, a driver-mechanic, and five drivers. Thus eight men were responsible for the care and maintenance of five ambulances. On this basic pattern we went to work.
Chan Ives (of Groton and Yale) was promoted to Lieutenant in command of one platoon, and I was to command the other. Ives was without doubt the most popular man in the Service. He was kindly, hard-working, and sincere. He handled his platoon well, his authority stemming from the desire of his men to do a job for him. Very few men let him down.
Between Chan and myself there was much good-natured bickering and banter as we drew up the lists of our platoons. Having been sergeant major on the trip across I had, perhaps, a better knowledge of the capabilities of the men than Chan had. We had our favorites whom we wished to have in our respective platoons. In the shifting and swapping it must be confessed I was not above chicanery as I wheedled and coaxed Chan into trades. Unselfishly he gave up men he could ill afford to lose and in return received several individuals who would cause him severe headaches. A toss of a coin decided matters between us.
The day we drew our first ambulances was thrilling to the most blasé. Two days after arrival at El Tahag the sluice gates of the Vehicle Reserve Depot opened, and ambulances, staff cars, three-ton lorries, and motorcycles swept into our lines. Thirteen motorcycles---good God! Did we have thirteen men who could ride the damned things? Immediately every member claimed a close and intimate knowledge with the two-wheeled threats to life and limb. Dispatch riding---just the job! More exciting than driving an ambulance. Suddenly we had approximately sixty volunteers for dispatch riding---only the comparatively old and very mild wanted the task of driving ambulances. It became unsafe to step from a tent as our company lines became a racecourse. One cycle bucked its rider, fell, caught fire, and burned. Finally all were rounded up and impounded until assigned.
In the British Army the signing over of a vehicle to a driver is a major operation. A platoon officer does not call a man to him and say, "Hey, Bill, see that ambulance over there, the one numbered WD 1330337? Well, it's yours. Take it over." No. There is a definite form. The machine (in fact, every vehicle in the British Army) is equipped with a "412" book. This is the record, the bible, the diary of that vehicle. It tells all. What tools equipped the machine when taken over and every gallon of gas and drop of oil fed to it must be entered. Every grease job and repair job has a neatly ruled sheet awaiting entries. It takes about an hour properly to assign a vehicle to a driver.
Fortunately for us, we were not drawing our full complement of ambulances. They were in Syria being operated by the Australian Medical Corps, and we would take over from them. Otherwise, we should never have got out of El Tahag.
Slowly the formation of the company took place. Four EPIP (Egyptian patent, Indian patent) tents served as a mess and lecture room. Twice a day we gathered for lectures from Captain Waller. The first served as an introduction. Without prelude he plunged into the job ahead of him.
"Western Desert service differs considerably from that of England and America in both operational and administrative aspect, and the course of instruction I have outlined for you is designed to give the benefit of desert-warfare experience to you Americans who have newly arrived. Every member of this unit from the commanding officer down to every spare driver must realize that he knows little of the new conditions to which he has come; every man must be prepared to accept the benefit of the experience of those who have met and settled the recurring problems of the desert. . . ."
Waller was a good speaker, clear and colorful.
"There is no magic overcoming the insurmountable obstacles in the desert. The question is largely one of adjustment. You must live with the desert---don't fight it. If you do fight it, it will whip you. Newly arrived units which accept the help of officers and NCO's with considerable desert experience will find their period of adjustment shorter and easier than that of a unit which through lack of enthusiasm does not wish to learn anything new or makes an ill-founded presumption based on training and experience elsewhere. Units which adopt these attitudes will fail from the start.
"Desert navigation is of the utmost importance to every unit in the desert, but doubly so to you members of the American Field Service. There will be many times when you will be sent out singly to distant points. You must be able to get there and back. Your life and the lives of the wounded you are transporting will depend on this ability. Attainment of this art requires method, practice, and concentration and a thorough knowledge of the use of the compass---both sun and prismatic.
"Before starting out you must know these four things: the distance from the starting point to destination; the bearing; the magnetic deviation if using a prismatic compass; your speedometer reading. Study night driving. I promise you, you'll have many occasions to do it. Select a star on a bearing two degrees less than the compass course you require---the lowest convenient star to the horizon is the most suitable---get into your car or truck and align your car so that from your selected position you can align a fixed object on your car in front of you and the star you have selected. A chalk mark on the windscreen, a point on the windscreen wiper, etc., can be selected.
"Keeping the object and the star in line you may proceed for half an hour. It will then be necessary to repeat your action as the stars change their position in relation to the earth. Trust your map and compass. To get lost is not a misfortune but a delinquency."
When Waller saw he was throwing too much too fast, he stopped abruptly. "Any questions?"
The first offered was one that has been asked many times and academically never satisfactorily answered. "Under attack from the air should a driver stay with his patients? Or should he get out and get into a ditch or slit trench and try to save himself?"
"Are we to assume you have, say, four stretcher cases? You are alone with these men---you cannot move them from the ambulance?"
"My advice is this. Leave your patients. You cannot help them by sitting there and taking it with them. If you save yourself, you can be of assistance to them after the attack is over. If you are killed or wounded, the wounded living through the attack will be helpless."
Several times in later months this question faced our drivers---and how it was answered has placed several among the heroes.
Spurred by the energy of Captain Waller, the unit went to lectures on the sun compass, desert navigation, convoy discipline, and the use of sand channels. The NCO's were taken in convoy into the desert and deliberately bogged down by the sadists working for Waller; the better part of four hours was spent digging out the vehicles. When the NCO's came back from that lesson, there was none who did not have an intimate knowledge of the shovel and sand channels. A sand channel is a metal strip five feet long by fourteen inches wide. When a vehicle bogs in the sand the channels are placed beneath the rear wheels to form a short runway. Staff and lighter cars usually carry canvas strips that perform the same service as the steel.
Andrew Geer. Chapter Two. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.