Dr Bobby Headley interview: Arrival in Africa

You arrived in South Africa?

Eventually we pulled up in Cape Town – a beautiful place. We pulled in there and had three or four days in Cape Town. Fantastic place. The whole of our convoy were marched around Table Bay – it must have been about five miles around. [Elsewhere] nobody gave us anything at all but here we were showered with oranges, grapes and things. They were all terribly kind to us. Then at night when we came out of the dock gates there would be ladies in modern motor cars waiting to take us to their homes to give us dinner.  They were almost too kind. We couldn’t really get out without them. It was ridiculous. I remember four of us went out. Most of the ladies had large American cars with not much problem. We were collected on one occasion and [one lady] was going to take us up to Table Mountain and a place called [?] where they had enormous grapevines. She said “I’ll take you up” so we agreed to come with her and she said my car is around the corner. A shiny little mini car and all four of us had to get into this car with her and we nearly died as we saw this girl laughing who wanted us to get in it. Anyhow we went into a restaurant and people would buy us food. There were two clubs we went to. They had the most fantastic parties, we were up all night. I suppose they regarded us sort of cannon fodder. They knew we were going somewhere. We didn’t know but we thought this was about as far away from the war as we could get.

Anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa?

At about this time the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean was shut to British shipping. To go through that strait was fatal. To keep Malta going – which we did during the war  - was immensely expensive and cost masses of shipping. But it did. Anyhow, here we are down at Cape Town, had a jolly time there, all had a few drinks. Then part of the convoy went to Madagascar. Half of the convoy went to Durban, half to Madagascar. They decided Madagascar was hostile and had decided to admit German submarines. So we landed part of our army there in disguise. It didn’t take very long and there we were. That was a minor battle of the war that went on. It only lasted a few days. Madagascar was still a lovely place. We had some people going along to look at all the lemurs and interesting animals. A haven for rare animals and birds because it was a long way from anywhere.

So you got to Suez?

So there we go. We didn’t stop anywhere after this, we zoomed straight along until we got to Aden. Not a particularly sanitary place. We refuelled and then we went up the Red Sea which was about as hot a place as you could go to. We arrived at Suez, not a very exciting place again. Wouldn’t give it any marks whatever. We got there two months later – at sea for two months. But we had eaten very well. All these ships that came via the Cape used to fuel up with food and drink so they didn’t have to take anything. I remember going on this ship in Liverpool – they drove us around the countryside in trains to disguise when we were taking off. But the minute we went on the ship we were served with a four-course dinner. It was marvellous. So it really was a pleasure in a way to be on the ship.

We realised when we got to Suez that we had got there because I went down into the engine room to see what it was like. How the chaps worked there I can’t think. The boiler room was unbelievably hot and they were there all day. Nothing happened. Our luggage was unloaded at Suez and we were taken by train up to Ismailiya. That’s the actual Suez Canal. We were taken to a place called El Qassasin which was in the middle of the desert and just a military camp where we were given training in how to live in the desert. I realised this unit was in for trouble because it didn’t appear that they were going to stay there. I was frightfully lucky. I got a call that I was to join another unit where we all got to know each other. (I subsequently went to Iran to look after troubles there.) I was told to go to Cairo and be briefed as to what I was to do. I was told that ghastly things were happening in the desert and how they had lost many people and I was going to join a unit called No 1 Mobile Military Hospital. It was actually in the Nile Delta. They have dammed it all up and created masses of lakes here since the war. Nile Delta is not getting enough water to keep it fresh and it’s all being used higher up. But that’s nothing to do with the war.