The past few train journeys I have undertaken have been quite exciting. Whenever I have taken a night train, it has been enlivened by a ….. ummm, I think I cannot tell you as I hope to replicate the fact tomorrow night too. However, whenever I have to board a train and the last few times, I have been travelling alone, I cannot bear to sit in the train until it starts moving. (The only exception was earlier this year when I found a train in which it was only possible to get a seat as fast as possible, and there was no possibility of moving till more than half the way… and then I began enjoying). Coming back a bit, however, whenever I am outside a train, I remember this account of the travails of Lt Dand McNeill. I’ll share some parts of the story with you, and for those who are interested, I recommend they acquire George McDonald Fraser’s The General Danced at Dawn and read the story titled “Night Run to Palestine”. It is undoubtedly one of the funniest accounts I have had the fortune to read, but for that, one of the finest pieces of writing, with that dry humour, vivid characterisations and metaphors….
~~~~It was my gun that had got me into trouble. I had been on a course up at Acre – one of those courses where you walk miles across stony hills and look at maps, and a Guards office instructor says, “Now this is the picture….” – and I was staying one night in Cairo before flying on to the battalion, which was living away along the North African coast, blancoing itself and playing football hundreds of miles from the shooting . Being me, I set off for the airport in the morning without my pistol, which was in the transit camp armoury, and so I missed my plane. You simply could not travel in those days without your gun; not that it was dangerous where I was going. It was just The Law. So I turned back from it, and the Movements Officer had a fit. Missing a plane was practically a capital charge. Apart from that, I couldn’t get another for several days, so they looked for something unpleasant for me to do while I was waiting.
“You can be O.C. train to Jerusalem tonight,” said the Movements Officer, with sadistic satisfaction. “Report to Victoria Station at twenty-two hours, don’t be late, and this time, take your blasted gun with you”. So I had a bath, played snooker against myself all afternoon, and in the neon-lit Cairo evenfall, rolled up to Victoria, clutching my little pistol in a damp palm…..
The movements office gave me a great sheaf of documents, a few instructions on how to command a troop train, reminded me we left at ten sharp, and waved me away. The place looked like a stock market during a boom, everyone was running and shouting and chalking on boards; I got out to the bar where sundry well-wishers cheered me up with anecdotes about the Jerusalem run.
“Tell me they’re blowing one train in three,” said an American Air Corps major. “Doing it dam’ neatly too,” said a captain in the Lincolns. ” ‘Course most of ’em are British or American trained. On our side a year or two ago.”
A quarter-master from the South Lancs said the terrorists’ equipment and stores were of the finest: Jerry landmines, piles o’ flamin’ gun cotton, and more electrical gear than the G.P.O.
“Schmeiser machine-pistols,” said the American cheerfully; “Telescopic sights. Draw a bead on your ear at six hundred yeards with those crossed wires – then bam! You’ve had it. Who’s having another?” “Trouble is you can’t tell friend from foe,” said the Lincoln. “No uniforms, dam’ nasty. Thanks, Tex, don’t mind if I do.Well thank God they don’t get me past Gaza again; nice low demob group, my number’ll be up in a month or two. Cheers.”
I said I had better be getting along to my train, and they looked at me reflectively. I picked up my balmoral, dropped my papers, scrabbled them up, and went out in search of Troop Train 42, Jerusalem via Zagazig, Gaza and Tel Aviv, officer commanding Lt. MacNeill, D., and the best of luck to him.
To be continued…..