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The Canal Zone 1952 - 1953

Posted: Friday 21st August 2020

Author: Alan Colburn

Leaving school at 16 I trained and qualified as a Path. Lab. Technician in 1950. Is this relevant, you may ask? Oh Yes! Because when I joined the RAF in January 1951 I was given an immediate rank as a Junior Technician, much to the consternation and annoyance of the Drill Staff at Bridgnorth where I did my “square-bashing” !!

Anyone in the “mob” around that time will remember the newly introduced rank with a single inverted chevron on the sleeve. Inevitably we became identified as “Chinese Lance Corporals” and almost as inevitably, being 6’3”, I was re-christened “Lofty” for the rest of my service. A little bit later I worked with a colleague at RAF Wroughton Hospital who was my height but built like the proverbial brick privy – he was known as “Tiny”.

There was a call for personnel to go overseas so I volunteered for Germany or Changi – I got posted to the “Zone”. The natives were getting restless and had already given King Farouk his demob papers so a lot of troops were sent out in a hurry. I entered RAF Fayid en route for the hospital and we quickly found out that all the billets were full and the overflow had spread out to camp beds on the verandahs. Very quickly the cataclysmic decision was made – tents would have to be put up on the main square! The Station Warrant Officer was not a happy bunny!! And so I was under canvas for 15 months – we made ourselves as comfortable as we could but purgatory took on a new meaning when the sandstorms blew in.

Although I had been riding time trials and massed start in the UK I decided that I wouldn’t take my pale green Mercian [with the South of France bars] – I would see if I could scrounge something in Egypt. So after trying to race on a vintage “Bitza” for a few weeks I was soon asking my mate in Coventry, Tommy Bromwich, if he could crate my bike and wheels and send out to the Zone. This was soon done with the assurances, in the UK, that the crate would be delivered directly to me but alas…….! I remember I was ordered to report to the Guard Room on a matter of some urgency and on arrival was confronted by a very smartly dressed officer with lots of gold dangly bits hanging off his shoulder and a gleaming Humber Super Snipe with an important looking flag on the bonnet. He told me quite firmly that in future I was not to employ private contractors to deliver parcels to the Canal Zone – it was not, repeat not, permissible. He then took me round to the back of the car and we unloaded my crated Mercian in a somewhat chilly atmosphere.

Although I was delighted to get my bike I thought that tipping him might not be appropriate! Training in the early days was a nightmare – we had to go out in uniform and in groups of four until the situation became a little bit calmer. Fayid village was in bounds as was Ismalia but still only in small groups. Eventually things steadied a bit and we could get out on the bikes in whatever kit we could buy or scrounge. I do remember that the Club on the camp was re-named “Fayid Road Club” instead of “The Scorpion CC” and because of that we had a set of brand new racing jerseys – all white with a broad red band round the chest. Our unofficial club room was the Arizona Rest House just opposite the Camp gates on the Treaty Road – hands up all those who recognise the photo.

There was great excitement at one time when it was announced that RAF Middle East Command had received an invitation to an International Road Race to be held in Malta. Selection races were organised including, rather bizarrely, a Four-Up Team Time Trial. The Good News came – I had been selected! The Bad News followed after a few weeks – the RAF couldn’t find any seats for the team to get to Malta!! We weren’t high enough up the pecking order obviously!

The “day job” continued to be routine for most of the time, as with any type of work, but interspersed with periods of extreme action and stress. An example would be a patient needing a blood transfusion which in the UK was a relatively simple task. Take a sample of blood from the patient to determine blood group, put in a request for blood from the Blood Bank nearly always in your own hospital, cross-match to double check and then transfuse the patient. Not in the Canal Zone at that time! No Blood Bank! So after determining the patient’s group you called in volunteers from a panel whose group had been checked and then you transfused directly from donor to patient. Quite often this would be concurrent with surgeons working on the patient treating trauma injuries so the atmosphere was quite highly charged!

1953 was Coronation Year, celebrated all over the world in military bases – by a Parade! I seem to remember that most of the hospital personnel conveniently found themselves involved in patient care in various ways. We did, however, promote a circuit race at Fayid on the camp roads which was called, somewhat grandly, the Coronation Grand Prix. I can’t tell you who won because I wasn’t involved in the finale. After being in the leading group for most of the event together with Jim Pike, Pete Eva, Eric Beauchamp and a couple of other riders I punctured with one lap to go! Another rider gave me his bike and I finished about 5th or 6th. That was one huge disappointment – I really wanted that one.

Time expiry date was looming towards the end of the year and another guy and myself made plans to ride back home together after getting a lift on the “milk run” flight from the Zone to Malta along the North African coast. Pete was due out about three weeks before me but we thought we could hide him on our camp for a little while so we could journey back together. No chance! He was discovered and told in no uncertain terms to be on his way – I think that was the term the Station Warrant Officer used!! I didn’t cycle all the way back across Europe – I let the train take the strain for some of the way. Did I enjoy my time in the Zone? Only if I remember the good times! But it was an experience and one from which I hope I learned more about my fellow man – and myself.

A note from the editor: 

Alan modestly tells me, I’m coming up fast to my 80th birthday and still competing in time trials riding for Team Echelon-Rotor []  Going reasonably well so far this season – a couple of short 26’s for the 10-mile time trial.

Thanks for reading

Posted: Friday 21st August 2020

Author: Alan Colburn

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