The author and fellow servicemen at a moral leadership course in Fayid, Egypt, in 1951. (photo from Alan Tapper)
It was the spring of 1951 and I was serving in the British Royal Air Force in the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt. I was one the many hundreds of thousands of young British conscripts sent to Egypt to replace the local workers, who had been told by their government to leave their jobs servicing the British military there. While these men did menial jobs, the work provided them a subsistence wage, which they lost by leaving. Times were difficult.
I worked for the air force intelligence unit. My job was to document all the incidents that took place in an area from Iraq to Egypt. There were a large number of shootings, disturbances in villages and casualties, both Egyptian and British.
Drug smuggling was also an issue. Habbaniya in Iraq was a British air force base at the time, and part of our command. The unit I was in also employed local Arabic-speaking trackers for intelligence work. Hashish was the drug of choice then and a tracker with the RAF once brought back some to our office for airmen to sample at the end of a cigarette.
I was based in Ismailia, in northern Egypt, on the edge of an airfield. I lived in a tented compound where the locals regularly fired volleys of bullets into the base. They were indiscriminate. Not a pleasant experience.
I also worked in the civilian labor office, where I discovered information on the large number of Jewish people from different countries living in Alexandria and Cairo. My job entailed monitoring all previous applications forms and that’s how I found out that there were many Jews in the region, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, who had worked for the British forces during the Second World War.
Even though the nominal head of Egypt at that time was King Farouk, the British government had a colonial attitude and controlled the whole of the Suez Canal Zone from Port Said to Suez, with army and air force bases throughout the area. Britain knew the strategic importance of this waterway to countries of “the Empire.”
Fifty years later, the British government recognized the effort of the conscripts who served in Egypt by giving us a Suez Medal. They were going to charge us 50 pounds for the medal, but changed their minds after the uproar the idea caused. Regardless, I’m glad to have served, and I still have the medal. I wear it at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
I was in Egypt for 16 months. One of the most memorable parts of my time in the Suez Canal Zone was when I attended a moral leadership course organized by the Jewish chaplain to the British Armed Services in Fayid, Egypt, during Pesach 1951. It was attended by Jewish servicemen stationed in the area and special Pesach food was brought in for the seder and the festival. It was a wonderful experience to meet fellow Jews in – of all places at Passover – Egypt.
Alan Tapper is a local freelance writer. His work has been published in the Vancouver Sun, Province, Courier, National Post, among others, as well as the Jewish Western Bulletin, now the Jewish Independent, and online publications. His first story was published in the London Evening Star when he was 14.