We Built An Empire With Men Like This

I wonder what size chest those pants are ?

Yes I know I’ve mentioned in the past that our dad was Frank Sinatra, well, there was a time, for a short while when he was Sergeant Ernie Bilko of the motor pool, quite fitting really considering the scams he got up to all the way through his life, some of the stuff that the fictional Bilko got up to were quite mild by comparison.

Our dad joined up for the British Army in 1940, he was 18 years old, I’ve still got all of his Army papers, his training certificates, his medical discharge back to the UK in 1946 when he contracted tuberculosis, and hundreds upon hundreds of small photographs taken with an ancient fold-out bellows style camera that he bought in a market in Addis Ababa.

He got lucky when he joined up, having worked for years in a friends taxi company keeping knackered up old cars on the road he was conscripted to the Army Transport Corps and almost immediately shipped out to Africa, which would have been quite dangerous if they’d shipped him out to North Africa to fight Rommel in the desert, but they didn’t, they shipped him out to Nigeria, halfway down Africa on the Western coast, dumped him and his platoon in Lagos and unloaded a whole ship full of Army trucks and spares that needed to be driven overland to Ethiopia.

They waved the ship goodbye and then went to find out where Ethiopia was, by this time our dad was a Sergeant and so was expected to lead his chaps intrepidly in a very British colonial stylee on the quest to find Ethiopia and their dropping off point – a quick look at a map that they bought in a market revealed that Ethiopia was on the opposite side of Africa, on the Indian Ocean side of Africa, probably as far away from Nigeria as you could get without leaving the continent.

They set off to drive their ship full of trucks and spares across Africa in the middle of World War Two but fortunately at least one thousand miles away from World War Two, they had guns just in case, and they set up camps by circling the trucks at night just in case, and once they were attacked by a rabid mule, so they shot it with one of the rifles and then took a photo of it which I still have, it would have made a nice keepsake for his mother when he got home, “Look Mother, heres a photo of a dead donkey that I shot one day”, “Oh how nice dear”.

He told me hundreds of stories of their endeavors driving across the width of Africa for they did it not just the once but they did it for three years, back and forth they drove shipping motor spares from Nigeria to Ethiopia for onward shipping across the Indian Ocean to, well, India actually.

And as he was an officer he was allowed to have a boy – thats his boy in the photo – all officers had a boy to make their beds, do the laundry, sweep the floor and prepare the food of a night while their officer entertained himself playing football with the other officers, or as in some of the photographs I have, swimming in rivers or simply sunbathing, yes it was a tough old life in the British Army in WWII Africa and don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t.

I have another old photo that I cant lay my hands on at the moment of our dad sat outside an Army tent on one of those canvas fold-up chairs with his boy sat cross legged on the floor next to him, I asked him once if his boy always sat on the floor next to him , “of course he did” was the indignant reply with a touch of “where else would he sit” mixed in with it.

Those clothes that his boy is wearing, they are our dads cast offs, I once asked him where his boy had come from and he replied that he didn’t know, the officers just shared out the boys who came to the entourage asking for work, our dad didn’t even remember which country his boy had come from or where he had joined the party, just that he had a boy servant, sometimes more than one, sometimes they just disappeared in the night and they’d press-gang another one at the next village.

In the photo with he and the boy sitting in front of the tent our dad has at least let the boy sit on what looks like a rug, I asked if it was a rug, he confirmed it was indeed a rug, a rug made from monkey skins, collecting monkey skins was quite a sport for the officers of an evening and was the only time when the rifles and ammunition got used, they’d go out on a monkey shoot and the boys would skin them when they got back and make rugs out of the less flea-bitten ones.

Later on when Italy surrendered their part of the war the motor pool was joined by Italian prisoners of war who were still under guard but with a lack of desire to run away (why the hell would you when the black boys were lower in the pecking order than you, the prisoner of war) meant that they were put to work driving the convoys and doing all of the maintenance work, the capitulation of Italy meant that our dad had even less work to do, virtually his only job then was to read the map and his views on Italians will have to wait for another time, he wasn’t too complimentary though.

His three years in Africa ended when arriving in Addis Ababa one day they were ordered to board a cargo ship bound for India, and like the Italians his opinions of India and the Indians will also have to wait for another day, suffice to say that his lifelong opinion on Indians was even less complimentary than his lifelong opinion of Italians.

He thought highly of his boy though, he let him keep an old pair of his boots, “he was so grateful he was in tears” when he left him at the dockside in Addis Ababa with the assumption that the kid would somehow walk back to Nigeria.

Us Britons once built an empire with men like my dad you know…

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