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William Henry Fuller
ALGIERS TO KARACHI
CASTLE BENITO, EL' ALAMEIN AND CAIRO
March 16, 1945
The Great Sphinx, with the body of a lion and
the head of a human, lies in front of the
Pyramid of Khafre. Khafre ruled during
the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
Once we got on our way to Castle Bonito, Libya, we settled in for a four hour trip over
the desert. We expected this would be a boring trip. It proved to be anything but.
Every once in a while we would fly over a huge stock pile of destroyed or abandoned
(captured) military machinery. There were scores of German tanks, trucks and bull
dozers, pushed into a tangled mess just waiting to rust away. The remains are
probably still there. For the next 800 miles we would see many of these graveyards
and each one conjured up thoughts of a terrible period of fighting in South Africa that
only those who were there could understand and describe.
When we landed at Castle Benito for refueling we saw more vivid evidence of the
fierce fighting that had gone on here. Any of the hangars and buildings that were still
standing (mostly corrugated tin structures) were so riddled with machine gun bullets
and other fire arms they looked like giant sieves. Four hours after landing at El'
Alamein, Egypt, the evidence of conflict was even more devastating and sobering.
This was where Montgomery made his greatest and most desperate stand against the
German army. They were less than 100 miles from Alexandria. If that port city were to
fall, that would end the war in North Africa for the Allies.
We stayed the night in El' Alamein. We were being introduced to the whole of the life
style of these desert dwellers in a hurry. Believe me, the comforts of home didn't exist
here. We ate very little and were constantly being advised not to drink anything that
wasn't capped, particularly the water. So we had our first shot at surviving on bottled
We spent the evening and night in our huts talking mostly about the war that had gone
on here. As the crew began to head for their bunks, Don and I started talking about
how we were all handling the trip. I was wondering out loud if the heat was bothering
him and if any of the crew members had mentioned anything to him. He said he hadn't
heard anything beyond the usual griping.
Ken said he was dreaming of a cool bath everytime we landed since the temperature
on the ground was around 100 degrees F., and it was much cooler at 4,000 feet. I said
to Don "If we had not been pulled off the overseas draft at Moncton and had gone over
by ship, we would just be pulling into Portsmouth, England by now". Those convoys
usually take 14-16 days to make it across the Atlantic Ocean.
As for us, only five days ago, we were in the middle of winter in Newfoundland. Then
about ten hours later we were in semi-tropical temperatures in the Azores. But that
wasn't the only sudden change we were having to deal with, even though it was the
most discomforting factor.
Everything was happening so fast. When our blood got a chance to thin out a bit, we
would start handling the heat better. There were the smells, the over-population, the
language barriers, the food, the time changes, and everytime we got out of the aircraft
we were in a different country !
It began to dawn on me that we were, each day, getting closer to the fighting war zone
and we were all still with the mind set of this being an adventure.
We weren't really thinking about going to war. But then, how should we be acting?
Each hour that passed brought new sights and sounds. Everything around us was
wrapped in history. This is the "old world" we were travelling through now. I sincerely
wish now we had taken notes as the memory gets hazy after almost 50 years.
I didn't sleep too well that night at El'Alamein. The uniqueness of this posting kept
running through my mind. Getting the opportunity to fly our own aircraft all the way
from Montreal to Algiers. Then being transported by air the rest of the way to India.
First by Dakota DC 3's piloted by South African Air Force, then from Cairo to Karachi,
India, via British civilian pilots flying B.O.A.C. "Ensigns". These were more comfortable
passenger aircraft used frequently for flying foreign oil company personnel around the
Middle East countries. Remember, there were 10 crews in all and only 2 crews could
be accomodated in each aircraft. Five aircraft and crews over 4 days ! Pretty
expensive transportation. We had better do a decent job when we get to our
squadrons. I'm glad we didn't have to pay the fare !
Well, the next morning we are off to Cairo, Egypt, and there is some excitement
amongst us because we had heard before we took off we may be in Cairo for 2 or 3
days before we could hook up with a B.O.A.C. flight out to India. This was good news
because we, (Don and I) and a few of the crew were anxious to see the pyramids.
Cairo was only a two hour flight from El' Alamein so we arrived in West Cairo around
mid-morning of the 17th of March. We were immediately taken to the manning depot
which was a huge field outside the city limits, filled with about a thousand tents ! This
was our accomodation - two to a tent including our overseas gear, which didn't leave us
much room to stretch out. The good news was that we would be shipping out again on
the 19th. This would give us time to go to the famous Shepherds' Hotel for dinner
tonight and arrange a tour of the pyramids tomorrow. Here we go again ! We really
were on a sight seeing tour ! No denying it anymore. We will be getting down to war
business soon enough I guess.
The Shepherds' Hotel, world renowned, featured many times in movies of the 30's and
40's, was a total disappointment. Food was OK, but everything really looked run down
and not really worth the trip into town.
The next day really made up for it, believe me. The Sphinx and Pyramids were
awesome. The bus ride out to the Sphinx and the King Cheop's Pyramids (there were
3) seemed endless but in reality was only 30 miles. As we caught sight of them we
were still some distance away, yet they looked huge. The closer we got the more
unreal they seemed !
I couldn't help noticing the change in the atmosphere as we stepped out of the bus.
The passengers all seemed to be as stunned as I was. The bus had brought us within
about 100 feet of the base of King Cheop's Pyramid, (the largest one). To look up to
the top, it meant flinging your head back as far as it could go ! It was a long way up
As I studied the structure I began to notice how much of the surface had eroded away.
The erosion exposed a good deal of the rock blocks that made up the structure. They
were quite uniform in shape but varied in length. Some were as large as our living
room, some larger and some smaller. They were all about 6-8 feet tall, as I remember.
What a masterpiece of a building. How did they manage to get the second layer of
rock up onto the bottom layer, let alone the final ones up to the top, some hundreds of
feet in the air!!.
Our guide spent a lot of time explaining the most popular version of the building of the
pyramids, as was generally accepted in the early 1940's. I still feel it was probably
closest to the truth.
He started by pointing to the horizon, across the flat desert toward the East some 30
miles away, and said, "Just beyond that is the Nile River and across the river several
miles is a range of mountains. The stone came from there !". He went on to say "Each
year the Nile flooded its banks for a long time. The water would come almost all the
way, within a mile or two of where we stand now. When this happened, the workers
would "take large boats and barges across to the mountains and put these huge stone
blocks onto them and float them over to the shore as close as possible to the building
The next step was hardly imaginable. Literally thousands of workers would begin
hauling this huge boulder through the desert with rope, with logs used as pries or as
rollers. Once the first layer was positioned to form the base of the pyramid, the next
step was to move sand into place to form a gradual slope from the top of the first layer
of boulders, back towards the landing spot to form a gentle slope. This was then the
path the next series of boulders would take to be set into place atop the first layer. This
presumably went on until the pyramid was complete. Each time a new level was
reached, the sand had to be banked up and since the grade had to remain the same,
the beginning of the slope was started even farther away from the pyramid ! The
grading was a non - stop job and took thousands of workers to keep ahead of those
who were hauling the boulders !.
As we stood there looking at the incredible distances the guide was indicating to us,
where the start of the ramp was estimated to be, the whole idea became incomprehensible !!
The magnitude of such an undertaking was almost more than I could absorb.
At this point I began to doubt, no, that's not right, I began to feel so stunned by the
enormity of the description the guide was giving that the whole thing seemed unreal to
I am sure the guide was used to this reaction because he then said he would show us
two fairly recent discoveries that would support his story. He then marched us to an
area about 500 yards away where there were some massive excavations going on. He
very proudly announced that only a few months before, there was a series of dwellings
discovered under several feet of sand. They were one or two rooms square, attached
to one another, and surrounded every so often by walls. He also said it was estimated
there were about 100,000 or so of these cells. They now believe the workers were
slaves or prisoners of a sort, probably even families were occupying these quarters.
The excavation crews stretched for what seemed to be miles across the desert. They
would be digging for a few years before they cleared that area.
The find had to be very recent because there were only a few dozen of these dwelling
cells exposed when we were there in 1945.
The guide then took us back toward the main pyramid and again proudly pointed out
another dig just being completed. It was the discovery of the remains of one of the
boats that was supposed to be used to float the huge boulders over the flooded Nile
River !! The guide was so proud to show us this, one would think he had personally
made the find himself. This was one more piece of evidence to support the theory
these people insist was the method used to build these wonders of the world !
Now the guide wanted us to go up inside the pyramid to view the burial chambers of
the King and Queen. He was a good salesman, as most of these guides and hawkers
were (as we would find out over the next several months). By the time we reached the
entrance to the pyramid he had convinced almost all of the passengers of the tour bus
to fork over the Egyptian pound it would cost to enter the tomb.
The minute I stepped into the opening, into almost pitch dark, I had the strangest
feeling come over me. This was stepping back in time many hundreds of years. The
air smelled bad, damp and stale. There was a string of electric lights, very low wattage
and spaced several paces apart, that cast a dim illumination through the tunnel. The
lighting was far from adequate because the walking space was uphill with every step
and very uneven. Yet we could hardly see where we were stepping. The guide was
leading the group, talking all the way. I, for one, was not listening to much of the
chatter. This was a very narrow passage and the footing was far from secure. Now I
am remembering how high this structure was when we were outside looking up to the
top, and here we are inside it and climbing and climbing and climbing !!
Then it gets worse. This mouthy guide, who has charged me a pound to go for this
walk, suddenly calls out.. "Everyone listen to me please. Until I tell you different, I must
ask all of you to walk up this next section with your right hand touching the wall on your
RIGHT ! It is very important you do not get on the left side of the walk. I show you
why, now. First notice there is wire netting (chicken wire was what it was) strung along
this section of the tunnel for your safety. But don't trust it! Now I will throw a rock over
the net and you will listen for it to land.
He threw the rock, about the size of a peach, over the net and in the semi-darkness
we were frozen into quietness, listening and waiting and waiting ! Finally there was a
'splash' and it seemed a long way away !
The wire fence was supposed to provide protection from falling 200 feet or more and
we had at least thirty more feet before we got past this danger area ! And then we still
had to come back !!
It crossed my mind at this moment, that it might not sit too well with my crew if I should
suddenly turn around and head back down. I mean, how could the captain of the crew
say he was afraid of the dark, or even worse, heights? ! No !, that wouldn't work, so
let's just press against the right hand wall and get by the next 30 feet.
We all made it without incident. Our next stop sometime later was the Queen's
chamber. It was a room about 15 ft. square and about 7 ft. high. The only thing in this
room was a raised stone open topped coffin which presumably had contained the body
of the Queen and masses of priceless gems and jewellry, (according to the guide).
Then on we went up again to the King's chamber which was larger but outfitted the
same as the Queen's. It too was totally bare. Anything that could be taken was
removed centuries before.
We had been told we had reached approximately the halfway mark up the pyramid.
I'm not sure if he told us there were no more tunnels or if we had gone as far as we
were allowed to go. Anyway it was time to head back down. "This time press against
the left side as we get near the wire fence !!", I was reminding myself.
When we finally got out into the fresh air we immediately noticed how fresh it really
was !. How bright the sun was on the sand ! How long the past 30 minutes seemed !
And how really glad I was that I never missed the chance of going up into the largest
pyramid in the world !!. It really affected all of us the same way..... a walk back in
time....a very eerie feeling.
Our guide then took us over to view the Sphinx, which was a fairly short distance
away from the pyramids. When we got there, the tourist traps were set and I guess we
all had a chance to get our picture taken on a camel in front of the Sphinx. It was a
memorable day. We all got a lot out of this excursion into history.
The following day,( March 19th, 1945 ) our crew was transported to the El Maza
Airport, Cairo, to board a B.O.A.C. Airline civilian twin engine "Ensign". I'd never seen
one before (or since) but it was more comfortable than the air force Dakotas. Our
destination was Basrah, Iraq, but we had to make two stops on the way. The first one
was Lydda, Palestine, then Bagdad, Iraq. We then took off for Basrah, Iraq, to
complete a total of 7 3/4 hours of flying but because of stopovers on the way, we took
over 12 hours to fly from Cairo to Basrah.
We were pretty worn out by the time we were picked up to be driven to our overnight
quarters. We thought sure we were destined to be billeted in more tents but were we
ever wrong ! The transport trucks pulled up to the most magnificent hotel I had ever
seen, somewhere out in no-man's land, 3 or 4 miles from the outskirts of Basrah ! It
looked like it had just been built. Marble, stone and tile everywhere you looked. The
rooms had huge beds, monster baths and everything was as modern as anything in
Canada or the States. Don and I shared one room and Ken and I think, Jeff shared
one on the floor below us. The rest of the crew were paired off on our floor.
We no sooner got settled and our phone rang. It was Ken, excited as heck, telling us
to get down to his room and see what they had. Well, Don and I took off and went down
to their room. The door was wide open and a lot of laughing and hollering going on
inside ! So, we go in, and this must have been a suite... it was huge. We followed the
noise and when we opened the next door we were looking into a huge room with a
sunken bath in the middle which was larger than our living room !! And in the bath was
Ken, Jeff, Woody and Frenchy swimming around like they were at the local Y.M.C.A. !!
Ken was going nuts ! He was having a ball. He talked about it for ages. We ended
the evening with a terrific dinner in the dining room. The last time we saw western food
for several months. We found out the next morning that the hotel was built by some
large oil company (American) to accomodate the different oil executives that worked in
or visited the Middle East oil industry.
Coincidentally, the night before, when we arrived at the hotel, our military escorts
warned us not to go out into the city. It was dangerous, and as white armed forces, we
would not be welcome and there was every chance we would be attacked. Well, we
didn't have to be told twice. We stayed inside the hotel and gave no thought to sight-
seeing. Some 45 years later we saw first hand over CNN TV what kind of mind set we
would have been dealing with. It was nice to get out of Iraq.
We have now reached the point in our journey where after 8 hours and 50 minutes
and four take-offs and landings we will reach our destination, Karachi, India ! So to
chart our final day, we took off from Basrah, Iraq, for Bahrein Is., Persia, from there our
next brief stop was Sharjak, Persia, then Jivani, India and finally Karachi, India.
Quite frankly, I remember nothing about that last day as far as the geography of the
area or what our stop-over airports looked like. It seemed it was a vacuum in my mind.
What I do remember about that day in general terms was that I spent a good deal of
time entrenched in my own personal thoughts.
Up to now, there was no doubt in my mind that we had been on an adventure and
sight seeing tour of tremendous magnitude. Today was March 20th, 1945. We had left
Gander Bay, Newfoundland on March 11th...9 days ago ! In that time, thirteen of us
between the ages of 17 and 24 had flown the Atlantic Ocean, flew around the Gibraltar,
caught a glimpse of Malaga Spain, for Johnny Schwartzman, our ball turret gunner,
survived a crash at Maison Blanc, Algiers, visited the Casbah, witnessed the thought
provoking history within the Sahara Desert in the form of immense military armament
and tanks rusting away in their desert grave yards.
Then there were stop-overs at World War 2 historic sites such as Castle Benito and
El" Alamein, and of course the Sphinx and Pyramids. Now on the 9th day we are about
to land at our destination where we finally have to literally come down to earth and
prepare ourselves for more serious adventure.
It would be 6 weeks before we are finally on our Squadron and ready to go on "ops".
There was plenty of adjusting to do and it was beginning to happen even now. We were
billeted again in tents just outside of Karachi for probably 2 nights before being shipped
out by train - destination Madras, three days and two nights across the country. Again I
remember nothing about those two days in Karachi except we never left the compound. It
seems my memory of that period was so focussed on the journey across India that nothing
prior to getting on the train has remained with me. The train trip was a very harsh introduction
to an entirely new and strange culture. The sight, sounds and smells constantly bombarded our
senses and it was very hard to adjust to them. I'm not sure we ever did, completely, that is.
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