The temperature rarely dipped to 90 degrees even at night. Flying fish
were spectacular. BBC World
Service was reporting widespread public opposition to military action … and
ministerial condemnation of the BBC for reporting that.
Sweating with me in the tiny ward-room were
two professional infantry officers. We argued constantly. Their theme was
all this discussion - we need to teach the wogs a lesson, let’s get on with
it". I suggested this was precisely why the UN had been created and that our
intervening might be counter-productive and cause the canal to be blocked (it
was) - but their mindset was still in the imperial era.
Once before, seventy-four years earlier, our
government had misguidedly sent troops to forestall loss of British control of
the Suez Canal, although as now its users were unconcerned (and unconsulted).
Invading Port Said, 5th
We reached Port Said on Guy Fawkes’
night. RAF jets blasted the town with rockets. A different kind of
fireworks! Crouching in the darkness as the landing
ramp swung down and the Commandos swarmed out onto the beach ahead of us I was
struck by the contrast with my ‘showbiz’ life, coping with temperamental
A hail of bullets clattered around us every
few minutes, answered by tracers arcing up to the many rooftops whence the
sniper fire was coming. I guessed that UKHQ might be the Canal Company office
and on the way there the jeep was fired-on - getting my head down rapidly I
smashed my front teeth on something, but otherwise Pete and I escaped
injury. I doubt that any vehicle ever entered the ornate gates of our
No-one was expecting us.
In fact the building was empty. Watching the battle through a broken
window it became apparent that we were ahead of the game ... it was almost an
hour before three armoured cars bumbled into the courtyard and a squad of
infantrymen 'secured' UKHQ.
To my relief the invasion
was halted within days, under American pressure through the UN.
(The story quickly
circulated of how this would have left us in a very vulnerable situation had
not a certain Colonel Gibson, commanding the 5th Royal Tank Regiment,
mysteriously failed to receive the 'stop' signal until his tanks had got far
enough down the road towards Suez to secure our landward flank.)
Unsurprisingly our long-range transmitter
was unserviceable and my (very able) engineers were working on it round the
By the end of World War II
several War Correspondents had achieved legendary stature by their bravery as
well as their reporting ... and they all seemed to be there. I was besieged by
these daunting characters, each demanding a table and a typewriter, which we
could give them - and communication with London and Washington, which we could
I contrived a temporary solution involving a ‘borrowed’ aeroplane and a
Cable Office in Cyprus … and the less said about that very unofficial
I should mention that bus-driver Pete was
the kind of entrepreneur that every well-functioning active-service unit
needs. When I asked him to try to find a courier going to Cyprus
who might be persuaded to take this bundle of typed reports (and he had
learned that there was none) he had
come back in less than an hour and taken me to the port's little airfield where
two members of HM Ordnance Corps were filling the tank of a private Auster.
And when I later asked him to request a replacement for our battered jeep
(with its neat row of bullet-holes) he collected me the next morning in a comfortable
air-conditioned Buick sedan.
With radio communication established, I
visited one of the majestic battleships anchored offshore, where a naval
dentist conjured up my first set of dentures and I had my first shower in
weeks. I was urged to stay for dinner but one look at the room with its
white-coated stewards and gleaming silver sent me, in my filthy battledress,
back ashore to my hard-working colleagues and baked-beans in a billycan.
While we Brits had apparently elected to invade this
downtown part of Port Said our gallant French comrades were installed in the
upmarket area across the canal entrance - Port Fuad - with its broad
avenues and night clubs and, well, the sort of recreational support required
by the city's new upper-class of well-paid canal-pilots. (Pete - always
attuned to the latest gossip - told me that the Royal Navy were shipping fresh
water daily to our allies' warships ... whose starboard cisterns were filled
with a well-known product of Burgundy and the port ones with a demi-sec white
from the Loire valley.)
This gossip was relished by the Generals who visited me most evenings - after they'd
heard the BBC news on the short-wave receiver in my bombed-out apartment by
One evening I was deep inside our
misbehaving transmitter with the technicians and I missed their visit.
The following evening I apologised - to be told "No need to be sorry, old
chap - your redoubtable sergeant tuned the receiver and poured us each a generous dram of your excellent single malt."
Briefly on the 'Amateur' air
(Photo courtesy of US magazine QST)
Three of us were licenced radio amateurs -
our brilliant chief techy (Warrant Officer John - centre in photo) and the
founder of our unit, Major Denis (on right, visiting us from his warship base)
and me. John concocted a simple amateur station in my unluxurious
bedroom and in odd leisure moments I pounded the morse key to give a few
hundred fellow hams around the world a rare callsign (MD5DNQ) for their
Shortly the spasmodic sniping paused -
discouraged by enthusiastic responses from our infantry colleagues.
(Courage returned, however, within days when we started withdrawing).
During the lull I dared to explore a
little of the city. I ventured inside a small temple which dominated the
square behind our base on the beach-head, and was appalled by the luxurious
interior. Every bit of intricate plasterwork seemed decorated with gold
leaf. This, I confess, reinforced in me a lifelong cynicism - I find it
very hard to accept that families who cannot afford to feed their children
nevertheless fund the obscene extravagances of their religion. The
antithesis of Quakerism.
Only days after that we were subjected to
sniper fire which emanated from the roof of the temple. I requested
advice from the infantry. Three stocky, very-Glaswegian, members of the
venerable Scots regiment whose tartan I had worn every Thursday ('OTC day') at
school, reported to Pete, cocked their Sten guns, and disappeared in the
direction of the temple. Half an hour later they returned and said "Ye'll
no be having ony mair trouble from that direction, sir". I thanked
them, adding "I hope you didn't need to shoot anyone?" Their
"Och no, that wisnae necessary". As they departed I thought
they were smiling. Moments later there was an almighty explosion and the
whole temple crumbled into dust and rubble. When my time comes I hope
that Saint Peter will know that that wasn't my idea.
Came the inevitable withdrawal. I escaped
the rubble and fleas of Port Said to be transported home in an
almost empty luxury liner, SS Asturias. 1956’s final contrast. The premier
stateroom was a suite of generous proportions and as I sat on its private
terrace with a cold Daiquiri to hand and a lovely Swedish girl manicuring my
broken finger-nails, the danger and discomfort of the previous weeks began to
recede. Had I not wanted to be home for Christmas I might have wished for the
snail's-pace of the outward journey!
Back at work at the BBC, I was riding the
long escalator upwards at Oxford Circus when a familiar figure came
sailing downward on the adjacent one. We greeted each other happily and
he suggested I wait at the top and he would join me.
I wonder if you know that feeling ...
meeting someone you know well but can recall neither a name nor any details
because they are out of context? This was an older gentleman. Trim
moustache - dark suit - bowler hat - rolled-brolly. After the
enthusiastic greetings and handshakes we both confessed our puzzlement.
He said "I've just come from Broadcasting House." I said I was
going there. But I couldn't picture him in a studio or office - rather
he'd been my guest at home - partial to single malt whisky.
Of course you will have guessed. This
was one of the generals - in fact the CSO (Chief Signals Officer) - my boss in
Port Said ... and the BBC's new Personnel Officer!
Postscript: 25 years later
Margaret died and I was on my own for a year, then Ann and I married. It
being midwinter we spent our honeymoon in Madeira at Reid's Hotel (in the
suite in which Churchill had relaxed with his paintbox and easel). The
impeccable Swiss manager invited the several other British guests to a welcome
party for us. Two of the guests turned out to be colleagues (and, er,
close friends - which we hadn't known!) - and another was General Sir John
Hackett, the distinguished soldier/scholar. On several days when Ann was
having a siesta Sir John and I sat in adjacent deck chairs and discussed
(well, argued about) books and writing ... an enjoyable custom we had started
in my hovel in Port Said.
After 30 years with the BBC I left,
went to management college, then spent 13 years creating new-media businesses worldwide. Being Chairman
of an international group of companies and of the Cabinet Office "Information
Industries" Council impressed no-one, but having known the Beatles gave me
I can’t forget that at Christmas 1956 my
small son took a long time to accept me again - daddies who disappear
overnight are difficult to trust ... a sentiment the nation rightly applied to
the politicians who had misheard the call to war.
battles big enough to matter, small enough to win."
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