The battle of El Alamein started on 23rd October 1942 at 9pm. It was dark and suddenly the sky was alight with the flashes of 1000 25 pounder artillery guns firing simultaneously. It was awe inspiring and at the same time terrifying. It continued far into the night and I couldn’t believe that anybody could survive such an onslaught. I felt sorry for those on the receiving end. To me it seemed such a nonsense that I had no desire to kill anyone and that most of the hoi polloi on both sides felt the same.
On the 27 October we had orders to move towards the front. Apparently, the German guns were preventing any progress by our tanks and it was our job to put them out of action. As we approached our starting point we went through the lines of tanks. The crew sat by the side of them and they wished us good luck.
When we reached the right position we were half an hour late. The artillery barrage which was supposed to support our attack had ceased. We were refused any more of their support.
We had orders to attack and attempt to destroy the big 88mm guns. We were also told that there was nobody in front of us but the enemy. Furthermore we were told to take no prisoners. On reaching our objective we were to dig in and our tanks would come to relieve us.
It was 9.30pm. It was very dark except for the flashes of gunfire. We fixed bayonets. I also had a wireless on my back but all I could hear was Egyptian music. We got the order to attack.
We moved off in single file. We saw a lorry on fire with figures circling around it. We moved in on them and discovered to our horror that what we thought were Germans turned out to have Scottish accents and in fact were squaddies of the 51st Highland Division. So much for the false information.
We pressed on. Machine guns firing lead bullets started up. They appeared to come straight towards us. Men began dropping around me. It was eerie because all you heard was a thud as a bullet hit and then a figure just seemed to fall over. Even so, 6 Italians and a German surrendered to us and we disarmed them and pointed to them to go back behind our lines. In fact we were ordered to shoot them but we refused.
The 88mm guns began to find their targets. All our wireless vehicles were knocked out as were our bren gun carriers. It was pure chaos and I couldn’t see myself surviving.
Eventually what was left of us were told to dig in. I and a colleague began desperately to do just that. I never shovelled as fast in my life but unfortunately we got down to about a foot but then hit solid rock. As there was so much flak coming towards us we lay on top off each other in the shallow slit trench. My bum was protruding over the top. About 20 yards to our left we saw an old gun emplacement and decided to run for that. My pal went first and reached it safely. Then I went but discovered on my arrival that I had left my rifle behind and had to go back to get it.
The gun emplacement, which was 50 feet deep with rocks piled around the top, was already occupied by 4 of our men. It was reasonably safe although shells were hitting the top and showering us with broken rocks. You could see the shells coming like a fireball. As dawn began to break we looked behind us and saw in the distance our tanks moving up. They laid a smoke screen and we thought that they were coming to relieve us but unfortunately they instead retreated behind it.
We discussed our position and decided that it was pretty hopeless and to bury any identification in the sand.
The enemy began to counter attack. Hell was let loose. We peered over the top of our hole and saw tiger tanks moving towards us. We saw no sense in firing rifles at them and if we emerged from our position we would have been mowed down.
Shells from the tanks were landing all around us and eventually a barrel from a tank was pointed down to us. The tank commander, in perfect English, ordered us out. He allowed us to pack up our wounded and began to escort us back. Captain Harrison made a run for it but was shot down.
I helped carry one of our wounded to an Italian first aid post. He was very kind to us. He showed us photographs of his family. He said Mussolini, Hitler no good and I responded Winston Churchill no good.
As we were escorted through the enemy lines ironically our artillery began firing and several of our fellow prisoners were killed. We also passed by the huge 88mm guns which were our original objective.
I didn’t feel that I had been a great help in the Battle of Alamein but so far I had survived and felt very lucky that I wasn’t one of the 14,000 who had been killed.
A beautiful afternoon; I am enjoying a walk in the countryside when I hear a voice
‘Excuse me, you.’
Oh dear, a man in a tweed jacket and cap is marching angrily towards me. Just now, I climbed a fence and walked along the edge of a large field, climbed another fence before finding the legitimate path on which I now stand facing the red-faced farmer.
‘How did you get here?
‘I’m sorry, I climbed over the wrong fence. It was a mistake.’
This does not placate him. His eyes narrow.
‘How did you get here?’
He is aggressive; the bull-male in me rears up.
‘I came on my legs – it’s known as walking.’
He looks momentarily confused then tries another tack.
‘Tell me, do you have a garden?’
I know exactly where he is going with this. He is going to ask me how I would like it if he turned up in my garden. As though his farm is an urban garden.
‘How would you like it if I turned up in your garden?’
‘I should be delighted. It’s not as big as all your fields but I like to invite in anyone who passes.’
He blinks. Game to me.
The antipathy between the countryman and townie is a game that has been played for two hundred years and more. To him I am a trespassing smart-arse and probably a leftie; to me, he is a posh yokel who was easily outwitted.
Neither of us looks back as we stride away from each other. (well, I don’t know – maybe he did)
So me and a younger stand-up are sharing a bill and comparing heckling scenarios in the dressing room before the off; I describe a middle-aged comedian I saw recently whose volume of delivery was in inverse proportion to the strength of his material. In the middle of his set a woman’s serious voice cut through the silence that followed one of his ‘gags’ – “You know, I think you really need to think about the way your life is going.” Ouch! She was rubbishing not only his act, but his entire existence.
My young colleague winces, laughs and tells me about a show during which a woman threw a glass at him.
“Oo, nasty!” I am sympathetic. “What led up to that?”
“It was a table of drunken girls on a hen night. They were just talking all through my act. I managed to quieten them down, apart from one who just wouldn’t shut up, so I said to her, ‘You’re the sort of woman who makes domestic abuse possible.’ She was the one who threw a glass at me.”
I say nothing but in truth I am appalled at his presumption of innocence in this situation. I do not believe it is acceptable to throw heavy objects at entertainers – but equally I do not believe his put-down line was anything other than crass, witless and offensive. Yeah, let’s all have a laugh about men beating up their partners. I consider asking him if, had the heckler been black, he might have said, “you’re the sort of man who made slavery possible.” But I don’t.
“That’s the thing,’” he adds, “there’s no line with me.” He says this sentence with a thinly-disguised tone of smugness and pride, as though he has just uttered the phrase, “That’s the thing with me – I have spent all my life struggling on behalf of freedom of speech.”
And what do you think of his ad lib? It is entirely possible that you are in accord with Dan Dan domestic-abuse-man (as he shall be known). ‘Hey, it’s just a joke, doesn’t mean he approves of domestic abuse, we’re all grown ups.’ It has been remarked (not least, of course in the Guardian) that among the recent crop of new male comics, not to mention the current crop of young men, there is a rebirth of old school sexism. Why is this? Is it a reaction against the perceived ‘political correctness’ of my generation of comics? Is it in imitation of the Jimmy Carrs who do flippant rape material? Is it to do with porn on the internet or video games or magazines like Nuts and Loaded ?
I watch Dan’s opening spot of MC-ing. It mostly involves him asking women in the audience if they are single and then dispensing low grade suggestive smut in response. To be fair to him he seems to get away with it, which I find somewhat depressing. He does a bit of material about how he inserted chocolate between the cheeks of a woman’s bottom so that on awakening she thought she had had an accident. Why a woman? The joke, such as it is, would be the same if it were a man’s bottom, wouldn’t it? Then he gets the men in the audience to growl and then the women to giggle. He observes, “sounds a bit rapey doesn’t it?” ‘Rapey’ – is this the most repulsive new word in the English language?
I return to the dressing room. I’ll read the paper til I’m on……..