By an old friend Norman A. Smith
I was almost resigned to spending the remainder of the “duration” in Egypt, and had begun to tackle the problem of conversing with Arabic-speaking peoples in their own language. However, it was not to be, and very soon it became evident that Egypt and the Egyptians were to be left far behind.
Alongside the “Sweet Water Canal,” from Ismailia to Cairo, the “feluccas” were wending their inexorable way; it seems incredible that these relics of an ancient civilisation should not only remain operative, but, to all appearances, completely indifferent to the age in which we live. As with camels and ox-drawn windlasses, they are with us, but not of us. It always seems to me that a camel must be a thousand years old, at least!
Cairo, in due course, bore down upon us, with its odd admixture of the East of a thousand years ago and chromium-plated, civilisation of the twentieth century.
One thing is certain, that, with the thousand or so years of practice, the Cairo Arab is second to none among the light-fingered fraternity! Even around residential Gezira I found the “atmosphere” somewhat stifling and unreal, and yet, after all, Cairo is “home” to quite a lot of people of diverse qualities, with whom, nevertheless, one would see “eye to eye” in many things. It is with pride that I record the presence of a voiture de course in Cairo, none other than our old friend, a Bugatti-blue Type 37, prancing Magnificently and obviously unmoved by the somewhat lurid atmosphere of “Sharia Emad el Dine,” from which it had just torn itself, losing itself (one could almost hear the snort of disgust!) in the traffic and hurly-burly of Sharia Fouad-el-Awal. Of things motoring also to be seen in Cairo at this time were many “Balilla” Fiats doing a job of work and enjoying’ it; and an 8-h.p. Fiat of about the year 1923, which sported itself after the manner of the “Grand Sports” Amilcar of that date.
On to Ghizeh, to Mena and the Pyramids and Sphinx of ancient Egypt; on the road to Alexandria, through the sandy wastes of the Western Desert, telegraph poles all the way! stretching out like some huge fence of a Jules Verne or Allan Poe story. A wrecked lorry here and there, innumerable petrol tins (some in halves, sticking up out of the sand, relies of past “brewings up”) to the , “Half-Way Course” at Wadi Natrult (kilo 102) and to Amiriya (kilo 156), with its incredibly lackadaisical and dilatory cinema show.
And so on to a fork road which possessed a signpost reading “Mersa Matruh and the Western Desert,” which left me completely cold! However, by-passing Alexandria (which, incidentally, has a quite charming city centre, the aforesaid charms being noteworthily materialistic, and purchasable at fantastic prices; these things, however, being offset by the outskirts of the city, which are indescribably filthy and smelly in the extreme). On to Metsa Matruh, which has nothing to recommend it. On to “Hell Fire Pass” and Sollum Bay, with its sparkling blue waters, in which we were happy to bathe once again, most of the dust of the desert being washed away. Memories of a “Stuka,” with its swastikas in full and inglorious view, that had crash-landed and remained in almost perfect condition, just below one of the “hairpins” of Sollum Pass. “Skyhooks” are almost a necessity for its removal! Then to Tobruk, with its harbour of sunken shipping, via Fort Capuzzio and Bardia.
From Tobruk to Benghasi, via El Bomba, Derna, St. Cyrene and D’annunzio “nothing to report” on the way; nothing, that is, if one chooses not to remember the grim reminders of what had gone before; wrecked trucks, in the ratio of ten to the mile or thereabouts, almost inevitably upside down and with all tyres and everything useful removed by “persons unknown.” Soon we leave Libya behind and enter Tripolitania, en route for Tripoli. The town itself was found to be most disappointing, being seemingly inhabited by Italians, who, however, were unmoved by our presence. We like the Yank and his “Jeep,” but, on the whole, we did not like Tripoli. A few words here on the “Jeep” may perhaps be both appropriate and illuminating.
A “Jeep” may he said to be the all-purpose vehicle of this decade. On ordinary roads of good surface it will cruise almost without effort at speeds in the region of 50 m.p.h. On rough ground, and across country, it will suffice to say it performs in a very lively and satisfying manner. Indeed, these two properties alone are enough to endear it to the heart of every American soldier-citizen: every “doughboy” is in Iove with his “Jeep.” It is an unqualified success. With no modifications, and only slight attention beforehand, it will run happily through shallow rivers. Given a boat body it becomes a “Duck” and swims indeed. (Yes! Like a celluloid duck. However, swimming is only its hobby, motoring its career!) Where it cannot drive or swim, it goes into a huddle with a “Liberator” (or even a Glider) and flies! A few qualifying statements about its construction will give to the uninitiated a clearer idea of why these things are possible. Its body is of all-steel construction, with mountings that provide a secure attachment to the frame. All major panels are of No. 18 gauge steel and are seamed and welded together. The body is insulated from the frame with “live” rubber and fabric insulator shims. The steering gear is the cam and twin lever, variable-ratio type. Its overall width is 5 ft. 2 in., overall length 11 ft. Notwithstanding its high ground clearance, giving easy access to hitherto unapproachable country (as far as an ordinary utility road vehicle was concerned), its overall height, to top of cowl, is only 3 ft. 4 in. Yes, militarily it is an unqualified success! (N.B. — The engines are interchangeable Willys/Ford V8.)
From Tripoli we passed through the small villages and towns, Agedabia, Madeleine, and on to Gabes, Sfax and Sousse. The scenery was not exciting, however, there being, here and there, buildings of Continental, of Italian, and even of Spanish architecture, which enlivened the journey considerably. Some quite charming people from the Parisian provinces were met in Sfax, and the grapes and iced grape-juice obtained thereat were found to be extraordinarily good ! Contrariwise, the wine sampled at Sousse was unanimously agreed to be uniformly bad!
Good roads now, mostly, and on to Tunis, which had many good things, as it seemed to us, a town with an “Avenue de Paris” must have! … Yes, Tunis in some measure repaid us for our many discomforts encountered since we left Cairo, which, mayhap, we shall not see again. A stay was made here, and the spot chosen for our sojourn was at Hamammet (I hope the “m’s” are in the right places), from whence many trips were made to Tunis (approximately 40 kms.) and to Algiers. It was during one of the former trips that a rare Type 30A Bugatti was encountered in Robeul (a small Arab/French town, about (6 kms. from Hamammet). This car was a black, Continental coupé, apparently in good order. It is also interesting to note that the first captured enemy vehicle in the Tunisian area was one of the 1,100-c.c. Lancia saloons, of which numbers were made at Turin, but none of which, it is believed, ever came to England. An opportunity to try one of these cars did not present itself, but the car I saw was certainly quite nippy and didn’t “mess about.”
The trip to Agiers was accomplished three times in all, many humorous incidents emanating therefrom, not the least of which was the time that the o.s. front spring gave up the ghost and two of us spent the night in the car, which came to rest at a ‘bus stop. With no ado at all, however, we proceeded to “brew up” and cook our belated dinner over a petrol-can fire, to the accompaniment of much silent merriment and quite as much not-so-silent criticism, advice and some heckling on the part of the ‘bus queue (in not less than three languages at any one time!).
The car? Sorry, the car was a “civvie” type Humber “Snipe,” circa 1935 or 1936. Trouble with the carburation was experienced from Tobruk to Benghasi, at which latter meeting-place a new carburetter was fitted, which effected a cure. Then, apart from the already mentioned broken spring, the only other time the car gave trouble (an incident which afterwards gave me furiously to think) was the time it shed its near-side front wheel, on the Sollum-Tobruk Road. This wheel came off when we were doing only 15 m.p.h. over a broken road, leaving three wheels stuck intact and shearing the other two bolts as it came adrift !