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The Exiles CC, RAF Egypt

Posted: Wednesday 19th August 2020

Author: John Basell

The RAF(Egypt)CA was the governing body for ALL cycling clubs in the Canal Zone, even the Army. The RAF had a much more ‘permanent’ set-up out there than the Army, although the Army had more chaps there. So the RAF (E) CA looked after everyone. At any one time there were something like 80 to 100 active (i.e. racing) cyclists. There were about fifteen clubs all told. Ours, the Exiles CC, was the best (I would say that wouldn’t I!).

We were at RAF Kasfareet, 107 MU (Maintenance Unit-Ed.), which was just HUGE. The camp was about five miles long by one mile and was the main MU for the whole of the Middle East Air Force – from Gibraltar to Aden and Habbaniya (Baghdad). We had 2,500 chaps, 90 WAAFs and 20 NAAFI girls! On average we had about 20 in the club (Cyclists, that is, not NAAFI girls!), including one or two from nearby small camps which had no clubs of their own (including our own Cyril) and, because of the huge size and numbers, we had very good facilities.

We had our own little club-room and separate workshop – right out in the sticks and, because the club had been formed at the start of the War, there was a whole heap of bikes and bits and also past members’ records to browse through. I was on the ‘Stocktaking Section’ which had a ‘Forth Bridge’ programme lasting two years. Not only did this mean that I was working at various sites all over the camp but, as I was notching up missing things and adjusting the records accordingly, our workshop became well equipped with all the tools and machines that a cyclist might want without all the hassle of having to go through the PSI!

But one of the nicest things was that we were on the Suez Canal by the shores of the Bitter Lake with the lovely Canal Road running round the side of the lake – excellent for time trials. The ’25’ course which started at kilo-stone 44 (to Suez), just by our camp, was unique in that as the time-keeper intoned 5-4-3-2-1 you could look diagonally across the lake and see where the turn was 12.5 miles away!

John's Sun in fixed mode. "I used to take off the rear brake and just leave the hood attached. This was a Deversoir RC '30' on the Canal Road."
The Canal Road about eight miles north of our camp. The club run is heading south at the end of the afternoon - hence the long shadows

I cobbled together a bike from the many bits in our workshop and raced enthusiastically on it. Lo and behold, just a month later, eight Sun SP bikes arrived which had been ordered by the PSI EIGHTEEN MONTHS previously! Because I had shown such keenness I was given a 23″ bike, brand new, straight away. It was equipped with a Benelux 4 speed by 1/8th, GB, Dunlop etc. I immediately got my Dad to send me out my sprints, my saddle and a longer stem and I enjoyed riding that bike for the next 21 months until I passed it onto another rider on demob in Dec ’54.

Re the 1/8th chain. I had no problem whatsoever with that Benelux. Some months later I sent home for a four speed close ratio block which I used for the road races but always rode fixed at all other times including the TTs. By having TWO spring links I could extend or shorten the chain accordingly and, because the rear brake had a full length outer casing, I could change from a geared machine to a fixed in about twenty minutes – a bit longer the other way round. The rear hub on the sprints was a double-sided fixed and gear Q/R Gnutti so I could use the sprints in either mode, although it was a bit tricky adjustng the chain on ‘fixed’ with the Q/R.

I managed several winnings and placings in my time including touring with five others in Cyprus and racing in Baghdad. I always regard my second place in the ’54 championship ’50’ as my best ride – I did a short ‘8’ after crashing at the turn and my club-mate Pete Curtis beat me by 40 seconds. A week later and it was my last event, a road race the ‘Circuit of Canal South’  71 miles (the longest single stage event ever held) in October ’54 and I went out on a ‘high’ by winning it (below).

I’m afraid I could write for hours on the subject and also on the present day Exiles CC, 15 members of which still meet and ride four times per year. (You’ve probably gathered that I’m as proud as Punch about that!) I won’t touch on the subject, today, about four of us who went back there, with our bikes, in 2001and were treated like VIPs by absolutely everyone – from the hotel handyman to Egyptian Army officers!

Peter Underwood adds:

Most young cyclists in the late 40s and 50s were conscripted into the armed forces for a two year stint.  During that time the authorities did everything possible to get the conscripts to enrol for a further year (I resisted their charms!).

I joined the RAF hoping to be posted to a camp where there was cycling as a sport but never saw another cyclist during the two years.  Being single and free I also tried to get an overseas posting to either Malaya or Egypt ironically.   I was in a group of twenty, most of whom had girl friends, wives or families, and were keen to stay in dear old Blighty.   They were all sent abroad to Malaya and Egypt while I was posted sixteen miles from my home town! One was constantly told, “yes, you can do this or that if you sign on for another year”.

It is partly as a result of this that I found the story of John Basell so interesting.  It shows that keen cyclists won’t let being thousands of miles from home surrounded by miles of desert keep them off the bike.  I asked John about cycling in Egypt during World War II and where the Buckshee Wheelers fitted in.  He replied:

“Yes the Buckshee Wheelers were more in Egypt than anywhere else. In our Exiles files there were reams of information on them.

Unfortunately the Buckshee Wheelers closed their membership to anyone after 1951, even though by the time they made that decision they knew that all troops were out of Egypt by Jan 1956. We all felt rather hurt about it and made several challenges.  My club-mate in the Southgate CC and Buckshee Wheelers big shot, Harold Scott the cycling historian, was always urging me to attend a BW weekend “as a guest” as I had been out there. After Harold died I discovered that he had been the chief objector in the BW to people like me joining!

Now that they are gradually ‘dying off’ (and Harold Scott has gone) they are welcoming us into the BW fold!!! At first we Exiles told them where to go (in the nicest way!) because we were ‘alright Jack’ with our regular meetings and clubruns but, of late, we have joined in with them and are all Buckshee Wheelers members now.”

Exiles taken in June 2004 at Clifton near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. With the exception of Claire in the middle, we were all out in Egypt in 1953/54. Left to right: John Basell, Southgate CC; Harry Mainwaring, Liverpool RC; Roy Manser, San Fairy Ann CC; Cyril Wagstaff, Derby Mercury CC; Claire Pitt, Addiscombe CC - Claire, wife of Ron, as Claire Perry, was a member of the winning Women's BBAR team 1954; Ron Pitt, Addiscombe CC; Maurice Hart, Doncaster Wh; Alex McWhirter, Sherwood CC; Terry Wesley, Macclesfield Wheelers; Vince Lyons, Manchester Wheelers; Les Archer, Stourbridge CC; John Kavanagh, De Laune CC; Jim Ogden, Altringham Ravens CC - Jim wasn't an Exiles man but was in the Satire CC, an Army club.

John also says, “Nostalgia plays some funny tricks especially when one gets really old like me! It wasn’t all rosy out there. Yes, I was indeed lucky to be on the right camp for a cyclist, relatively good facilities, a new bike within weeks, situated by the Great Bitter Lake rather than being stuck up alongside a boring part of the Canal itself etc etc. But, there were some downsides too. For the first year I was out there there was continual local guerilla activity which meant restrictions on going out without escorts, night guard duty as often as every five nights, no fresh food – POM every day! As well as circuit massed starts, TTs had to be held on airfields. We were continually having tyre troubles out there – the ubiquitous Dunlop HPs in particular were just not up to the job, they just could not cope with the hot, dry and sandy conditions. A lot of our time was spent sewing up split sidewalls with tub thread! In fact tubs, particularly d’Allesandro and Pirelli were generally a better bet than heavier HPs!  But, of course, National Service pay wouldn’t allow too many such purchases.

My last six-nine months were different again. When the British agreed to move out of Egypt within twenty months the local mood changed overnight and most restrictions were lifted. We could ride up to and into Ismailia again and enjoy proper ‘out and home’  50-mile events again. It also coincided with me going onto ‘Regular’ wages! We got quite adventurous and, although the Suez area, at the extreme South of the canal, was officially only in bounds to troops of the Suez Garrison, we, being cyclists, could book out and then go virtually anywhere we wanted to. So, to the amazed envy of some of my non-cycling pals, we would often go down there – about a 65 mile round trip. Fortunately we were never challenged by any SP or MP patrols whilst down there.”

Thanks for reading

Posted: Wednesday 19th August 2020

Author: John Basell

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