"But for the whole journey over, we had to keep our slacks on. It was the first time I think most of us had worn slacks in those days."
Well, it was 1939 and we’d had the first bomber in my hometown, Worcester, [England]. And also, before that, we were having to do night duty on looking after the rows of buildings in the city, for bombing. Then you had to work all day and cycle home in the morning. I thought, well, I’ll join the [Royal] Air Force. My brother was in the Air Force and I thought it was a good idea to join the Air Force.
At the time of course, we carried gas masks around all the time. And we did have one theory in one camp I was on that if you were caught and they blew a whistle, some sort of whistle, to let you know that there was gas coming along, you know, that you had to put on your gas mask. And if you didn’t, you were treated to a whitewash and I couldn’t see very well, even in those days. And I used to have to do the whitewashing. People had to go into shower rooms and we would whitewash them, well, we would wash them down. It was a thing so that everybody got into the habit, as soon as you heard the air raid siren, you put on your gas mask and that was made of activated charcoal and merino cotton wool. I always remember that, activated charcoal, merino cotton wool, was the ingredients in the gas masks. And we had to carry those at all times with us.
We were on the boat [to Egypt] and there was still submarines around so we had to have drill every morning. And on the side of the boat, they had strings, well, I don’t think they called it string, where you get down and when you escape [scramble nets]. And that was my biggest fear is going down on one of those things. The only place that I was that I was on the same notation of escape with the captain and I thought, well at least he’ll know how to navigate a small boat if we have to. But for the whole journey over, we had to keep our slacks on. It was the first time I think most of us had worn slacks in those days. And as I told the young lady, because we had a, well, there were various crew, different nationalities aboard, including Americans, and the American soldier did not have a good reputation with women in those days. And so we had two English soldiers stationed at the end of the hall to make sure the Americans didn’t come down. And the two Englishmen used to bring us tea in the morning because English loved tea. And most of the journey. I think we had a couple of alarms that there were submarines in the way but we didn’t have to evacuate the boats.
It was rather strange. Stupidly, the government didn’t tell us anything about the rules and regulations and when we were on the streetcars, we came across these ladies with just their eyes showing and we thought they were rather amusing. And here we were in these silly little short skirts, showing all our legs, yeah, it was stupid. But we took cookery lessons and you know, they tried to keep us occupied, as well as during work hours. We had ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association] concerts and things like that, usual things.
But I liked Egypt, yes, and we used to take our laundry, our shirts to what we called the dhobi [a washerman or washerwoman]. And we had to pay but my friend and I can’t remember how we got paid or how, can’t visualise the money. But we went to what we called the dhobi and the fellow, instead of spraying with water, he used to take a swig of water and then just spit it out on our clothes. That’s how we ironed it. It was rather fun but they were very nice.