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A view of the picturesque countryside of Algeria
[AWM MEC0919 by Laurie Le Guay]
One fine day in 1943, Tom Russell was on leave in Tripoli when he noticed an American Colonel get out of his staff car and go into the Officers' Club. As the driver also wandered away, Tom did what our Squadron did so well in time of war and "borrowed" the car. Back at the squadron, and within an hour, the car had been repainted in 8th Army desert camouflage, had new number plates and the squadron "CV" insignia on the side. (This was later removed so as not to incriminate the Squadron.)
All the previous preamble leads up to what we did with the one week's leave that was given the Squadron, we being Tom (pilot), "Doc" McLeod (pilot), Jimmy Kemp (motor mechanic) and me, Johnny Howell-Price (pilot). Tom decided it would be nice to drive to Algiers in his "new" vehicle. The rest of us went along for the ride, Jimmy Kemp being the most necessary, in case of any unforeseen breakdowns.
Our first stop was at Gabes, a town we had visited on the way up the Peninsula. Jimmy knew a French family there who cooked up a very nice meal for us from rations we had brought with us. Although it was late at night, we decided to press on and reach Tunis early the next morning. Unfortunately, just north of Sousse, our water pump started giving trouble, so we had to slow down until we could find a replacement. We did not stop in Tunis, but kept on until we found a salvage depot about ten miles out of town. Fortunately, a pump was available and Jimmy and Doc replaced the ailing part. Tom and I prepared lunch at this stage and were very proud of the resulting meal.
After the desert, the greenery and scenery along this stretch was a sight for tired eyes.
We arrived that night at a small town called Souk Arras and stayed at a nice little hotel for the night. Like most hotels in the area, there was no bathroom, so all we could do was have a lick and a promise in the washbowl.
On again at daybreak in the hope of having breakfast at Guelma, where we had what turned out to be one of the nicest omelettes I have ever tasted. So nice, in fact, that we had two each.
On the road again, headed for Constantine, hoping to reach there for lunch. We passed through several small villages on the way, all very well looked-after. The farmhouses we passed were all quite large, white-painted brick with red tiled roofs. The better ones were two-storied and gave a good indication of the relative wealth of the region.
Lunch in Constantine was at the R.A.F Rest Camp which had been the Boys' Technical School before we occupied the area. This was an intriguing town, being built high on the top of a crag which poked up about 2,000 feet above sea level in the middle of the surrounding plains. It was split down the middle by a deep (about 600 feet) canyon, with the two sides joined by four or five bridges. The streets on both sides wound in all directions. It was really quite large, having a casino, a couple of cinemas and several cafes.
Constantine, Algeria. View of a suspension bridge in the Arab quarter of the city of Constantine. [AWM MEC1056]
Next morning, we decided to look around a bit more, so set off again after breakfast. Somehow or other, we found ourselves with two American Red Cross girls for lunch, which was quite pleasant. But did they talk! Non-stop!
Our next port of call was to be Setif, where Tom had a letter of introduction to some American V.A.D. girls who worked at the hospital. On arrival, we had lunch, then went visiting the hospital. After getting to know them, we made arrangements to take them for a drive the next morning. However, after booking rooms and settling in for the night, we found out, accidentally, from a padre (he had just fused all the lights in the hotel) that it was only about six hours to Algiers, so off we went at midnight, on our way. We never did see the V.A.D.s again.
Algiers appeared before us at dawn, built in a semi-circle on the hills surrounding the harbour. All the buildings were white and look very clean from a distance.
Algiers, Algeria. c. 1943. View of the town of Algiers, as seen from the air after the Allied occupation.
Not quite so clean close up! We managed to book into a hotel, Hotel de Radio, for that night, then had breakfast at an American-subsidised hostel. The breakfast consisted of tomato juice, cornmeal pancakes and syrup, sausages, doughnuts and coffee. All for sixpence!
After that came sightseeing. Tom had an introduction to another American nurse, so off he went and we three wandered around the various shops and bazaars. We went up to the entrance of the Kasbah, but not into it. The natives did not look in the least bit friendly, so we thought we would not push our luck. We felt however, that we really should visit a brothel in this "city of enchantment" so that we could boast about it to the chaps back at the Squadron. We tentatively went in the front door which opened into a large lounge room, and were faced with about half-a-dozen of these Middle Eastern "houris", none of whom weighed less than about fifteen stone and were bulging out all over. Not a pretty sight, believe me. I think we were out on the street again in about two minutes. Or maybe it was one minute, thirty seconds. It did not seem to faze the Americans though, as trade was fairly brisk for that time of the day.
Close-up view of the WWI Memorial in Algiers
[AWM MEC2211 by Laurie Le Guay]
Some more sightseeing and then it was teatime and on to bed, as we were leaving before breakfast the following morning on the trek back to Zuara. We hoped to reach Guelma that night, after having lunch at Setif and stopping in Constantine to pick up some of our kit which we had left there on our way through.
While in Guelma we met a little lad who said his family had moved there from Benghazi when the fighting had started. He took us to his home and we were welcomed by the family, especially when they found out we were Australians. It appears they had met some of the A.I.F. boys when they passed through Benghazi and who had treated them well. We passed a pleasant hour with them, yarning and drinking wine. Then it was off to bed.
Next day, we headed for Bone hopefully in time for breakfast. I was driving and in a bit of a hurry (about 100 m.p.h. on a road built for 50 m.p.h.). Unfortunately, a small French car driven by a small French man pulled out in front of us to pass a donkey cart in front of him. It was too late to brake, so I swerved around the car and almost missed the donkey cart, but just clipped one wheel. That, together with our reverse swerving, succeeded in sending our car around in a complete circle, blowing out the two back tyres in the process. For a while we just sat there, being thankful that we were still in one piece and hadn't overturned. Then the wrath of the three passengers descended on the driver for not being more careful. For punishment, I was sent on up the road to try and find a place where I could get another tyre, as we only had one spare available.
After a long walk, I managed to obtain another tyre and was returning to the car when what should pass me but our car. They deigned to stop and pick me up, which was probably more then I deserved, and explained that a Frenchmen had offered Tom a lift into a nearby town, where he managed to obtain two new tyres of the required size, was driven back to our vehicle and the damage was quickly repaired.
Anyway, instead of breakfast, we arrived in Bone for lunch. We managed, also, to have a proper bath there, the first of our trip. What a lovely feeling to be clean again.
On again to Tunis, only to completely lose our way, to be rescued by yet another Frenchman who led us all the way to the city. That was another hair-raising drive, as the road was a very winding one and his little car could corner much faster than ours; but we managed to hold on long enough to get there intact. After a quick meal, we pressed on through the night and reached Gabes in time for breakfast. This we had with the same family we met on the way through. It was a prolonged breakfast so that it was very late when we arrived back at the Squadron.
It was certainly a trip to remember, the total distance being over two thousand miles, covering scenery from flat desert to lush green farmlands and towering mountains, all bordered by the same bright blue Mediterranean Sea. Lovely, and we were all still friends at the end of it.
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