Topic: The Sand Castle by Hugh Harrison
A light hearted story about building with concrete in the desert during WWII. Reprinted with permission from the 1998 May 'Hauraki News', the 6th Battalion (Hauraki) Regimental Association's newsletter.
I spent a short period in Maadi Base Camp Egypt before going to Italy. One day, because of my carpentry background, I was told with my Kiwi mate to build a large concrete garbage and swill stand outside the main cook house and mess rooms area.
The stand had to be the height of a truck tray and with enough room on top for several 44 gallon drums and working space. There had to be steps up and down for the men to put their meal scraps into the drums and, for the Cooks to carry their garbage up easily.
Boxing timber was there and also the cement from a large cement works just north of the camp. Water was close by and a large concrete paving area provided a good mixing place. We were given a truck and a gang of four "Wogs" including a 14 year old boy. They arrived all gabbling away in Arabic. As we had learned a bit of their language in the year we had been in Egypt I tried to communicate with them that way. After several hours, when we were constructing the boxing and I was having a hard time explaining what was required, the 14 year old suddenly asked me in perfect English why I didn't speak B— English.
They had been having us on and we fell for it. We had a good laugh about their joke and things went much better from then on.
The boxing was finished and we needed sand. I took the gang to a nice bank of sand some distance from the Parade Ground area, but still in site of H.Q. and started digging. Almost immediately, a motor bike rider appeared and shouted to us to stop and get the sand from the proper place. He had no idea where that was, so I went to the Camp Office and there was the sand pit clearly marked at the edge of the open desert about half a mile away. Off we went in the truck down a track that eventually disappeared into the sandy waste. We carried straight on to a post with a board nailed to it and labelled Sand Pit. It seemed ridiculous the whole place was sand!! We were to make the journey several times in the following days.
Back on the job the mixing started. I measured out the 5 to 1 quantity of sand on the concrete pad and emptied a bag of cement on top. I showed them how we mixed it in NZ with our shovels, but they said we were wrong and they would do it their own way. "OK", go ahead was my reply. They tied a length of rope to the neck of a large shovel just above the blade. Two men steered the shovel by the handle and the others pulled it like a plough criss cross through the heap, while they chanted endlessly strange Arabic songs as they tramped bare footed over the heap. Finally when properly mixed the water was added and the wet concrete was poured from buckets into the boxing until the very thick walls were filled and the top levelled off.
After several days when the concrete was properly set, the boxing was removed to reveal a near perfect job. We carved the date into one side and then moved on to Italy.
Many years later, after the war a wandering "Kiwi Soldier" went back to Maadi Camp and wrote an article about his visit.
I remember he wrote that the place was deserted and most of the had been removed. However, published with the article, was a photo he had taken of the old cook house and mess rooms site. It was just empty flat ground except, for proudly visible above the drifting desert sand was a good looking concrete garbage and swill stand.