Rafah, a Palestinian city on the southern edge of the Gaza strip, has been much in the news recently. It is split into an Egyptian side and a Gazan side, with the centre destroyed to create a buffer zone and separated by barbed wire barriers.
It is also the location of the only functioning border crossing between the two states. I use the word functioning loosely, because it is prone to being closed or blocked in times of trouble, as it is now, with humanitarian aid only allowed into Gaza from Egypt spasmodically.
Rafah came into our family conversations occasionally throughout my childhood, because my Dad had been stationed there in 1946-48 whilst he completed his National Service.
I don’t hail from a classic military family, but like many others in my generation I had parents, uncles, and grandparents who served in the armed services during the First and Second World Wars. My father was called up in his turn with his age group, famously arriving on the platform at Catterick rail station in Yorkshire to be greeted by the newspaper hoardings declaring “Japan Surrenders!”
He spent six weeks or so there square-bashing as a private soldier recruit before being called into his company commander’s office and being told he should become an officer. And so he went to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, fifty-three years before I did, and completed the course rather better than his son managed to do.
Being a boy from Lanarkshire his home regiment was the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), into which he was duly commissioned. The First Battalion of that fine regiment was then in Greece, fighting the communists, but had “too many officers”, so he was seconded to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) depot at Rafah, where acres of stores were stacked up in warehouses in the desert.
And that’s where he did his two years’ National Service. He didn’t speak about his military service all that often, but he clearly had enjoyed his time in uniform.
In those days officers were given a servant, or batman, to assist them with their varied and assorted duties. My father’s first batman on his arrival was Helmut (I never knew his surname), a German ex-member of the Deutsches Afrika Korps who had been captured at El Alamein in 1942. Helmut came from Hamburg, which had been flattened by the RAF, and had no idea whether his family had survived or not. He was finally repatriated in 1947 and fades out of the picture. What became of him and his family I know no, but I sincerely hope they survived and were reunited again.
Although normal working hours seemed to prevail, the war was long over and it was easy for boredom to set in, so various initiatives both personal and collective took over leisure time. My Dad was both a very good footballer and a golfer, playing off a handicap of three for a while, and set out his own self-designed nine-hole golf course in the desert.
Another sport played in the desert was cricket. Dad had never played cricket before in his life – it’s a quintessentially
English sport after all – but on his first acquaintance with the sport where he was making up the numbers he scored the most runs. He had a good eye for a ball.
On a more hedonistic note, it was the custom for the various officers’ messes in the area to challenge each other over who could produce the most sumptuous fare at dinner nights. On one occasion he used to recall being a guest at a formal dinner which ran to seventeen courses!
The nearest big city for R&R and shopping was Cairo, which he used to say you could smell in Rafah if the wind was blowing in the right direction!
He only fired his pistol in anger once, so he told me, at a wild and probably rabid dog which had got inside the wire. He missed, but succeeded in temporarily deafening his driver who was at the wheel of his jeep at the time.
And so that’s how my Dad spent his two years of National Service in Palestine. He was asked to stay on and convert to become a regular officer but declined; Britain was war-weary and the dash to get demobbed and return to civvy street was all-consuming. Most of his contemporaries did the same. He used to muse in later years whether he should have continued with a military career, but of course by that time it was all too late.
I wonder what he would make of the state of the Middle East in general, and Rafah in particular, now? I suspect that like the rest of us he would be horrified by the indiscriminate violence and much saddened that Palestinians and Israelis have not been able to find a way to get alongside each other in peace. I just hope people are not still similarly saddened another 75 years from now.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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