All that remains of a city of 76,000 New Zealanders in the Egyptian desert are two small metal plaques.
Tents and huts which World War II soldiers called home have been swallowed by the megacity of Cairo. A larger monument to the men and women who lived and trained at Maadi Camp beside the River Nile was removed when Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal and rubbed out all signs of a colonial presence.
Two years ago, author Alex Hedley started his search for New Zealand's far-off staging post. He discovered the history of a town that no longer exists but which 60 years ago had bars, shops, pie and icecream factories, dining halls, cinemas, chapels, clinics, libraries and a swimming pool built by General Bernard "Tiny" Freyberg for soldiers under his command.
"You couldn't imagine a more different place to go," says Hedley. "We are talking about young New Zealand men who had never been overseas finding themselves in a culturally alien landscape. They were in an Arab world, an Islamic world - it was a long way from their home town."
Maadi Camp, 14km south of Cairo, was laid out in 1940 for the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Freyberg, a World War I Victoria Cross winner, selected the site and engineers laid seal, 10kms of water mains and 6kms of drain. Soldiers arrived by train to sleep on straw mattresses, their freezing nights disrupted by the howls of stray dogs and the clatter of fruit bats.
Conditions were far from easy. Bedbugs were insatiable. Desperate soldiers would soak bed boards in kerosene to kill the insects. Boards would be briefly burned to destroy surviving bugs.
Sand was a menace. The worst was the dust whipped up by a vicious wind known as the khamsin. In their diaries soldiers of wrote how khamsin sandstorms made the air full of grit, with the final mouthful of a cup of tea being full of sand. Dust found its way into intimate body parts, causing desert sores so painful that many young men had circumcisions.
For thousands of young troops the camp would be their address for months.
Writes Hedley: " After each man had endured [his] first bout of dysentery and adapted to the cold night, hot days, persistent flies and the routine of military life, leave was granted generously."
And, he says, used energetically. Cairo, a short train ride away, was a magnet. It was in the teeming streets and bazaars that the New Zealanders had their closest encounters with Egyptians. Says Hedley: " I don't think they really understood each other. From what I found it was a difficult relationship.They were each trying to get one over the other."
Egyptians, he says, saw the New Zealanders, like other Allied troops in their country, as a source of income. Wary Kiwis, on the other hand, were much on their guard, alert to a scam. The soldiers adopted the British term "wog" in referring to Egyptians, or 'wily oriental gentlemen'. The tag was used, remarks Hedley, with a mixture of affection and contempt - " a reflection of how they felt about the place and the people, in general".
For wide-eyed young New Zealanders, Cairo was irresistible. Beside the brothels, bars did a roaring trade with thirsty soldiers. Beer from home was available at the New Zealand Club, and was preferred to the local Stella brew, a concoction made from onions grown in fields irrigated by the Nile.
Trams crossed the river to the city's zoo, a restful oasis away from Cairo's confounding ways. The pyramids were a short train ride from camp. Climbing to the top was possible, and soldiers took the time to carve their initials in stone just as Napoleon's men had done 150 years earlier.
For troops with longer leave passes, Egyptian State Rail carried many New Zealanders on long trips up the Nile to Aswan Dam or Luxor, or down river to Alexandria. The men travelled cheaply, sleeping in luggage racks and choking on vile smells. Some even went as far as Jerusalem and Beirut.
The leave lifted morale and came as relief after the endless hours of parades and training to prepare soldiers for battle. From Maadi, men were sent to Egypt's Western Desert to confront Benito Mussolini's Italian forces and the German Afrika Corps, and to campaigns in Italy, Crete and Greece.
Hedley first heard about Maadi on a trip through Egypt. For his book, he interviewed returned servicemen who spent part of their war in Maadi, pored over their letters and diaries, and returned to Egypt to imagine what his own grandfather - a veteran also named Alex - did during his time at the camp. The book's title, Fernleaf Cairo, was the telegraphic cable address for Maadi Camp.
" I was the same age as my grandfather," says the 25-year-old. "I understand why these men volunteered. They were going to war, but they had a chance to get away from New Zealand. I think they gave us the idea of New Zealanders as the world's nomads."
LEST WE FORGET
The Maadi Camp was not without its rules and regulations. Here is a selection from the list issued to each newcomer.
7. The East, as ever, is a hotbed of spies. No one can ever be taken at his face value, in uniform or out of it. The enemy has a plentiful supply of British uniforms, British Forces Identification cards and the like. Do not allow yourselves to be drawn easily into conversation with strangers. Most of us are, it is feared, "easy meat" at the hands of people by nature far cleverer than ever we can hope to be in the matter of extracting vital information without appearing to do so.
8. Avoid discussion of military matters, even between yourselves, in public places, trains and public conveyances, and particularly in bars, restaurants, hotels and clubs where the cup that cheers is likely to loosen the tongue and rob the individual of his normal amount of caution, and remember that the more popular the restaurant the more does the enemy value it as a mine of information. The Axis spy and the Fifth Columnist by no means confirm their activities to the hole and corner methods so popular with the novelist.
15. Always take the utmost care to avoid giving offence to Egyptian nationals and in particular in the matter of Mohammedan customs and traditions ... At heart the average Egyptian, and in particular the fellaheen, is good humoured and happy, is courteous by nature, is intelligent and on the score of good manners can give points to most of us. In many things their ways are not as ours, but that is by no means to say that they are thereby wrong ...
A STRANGE LAND OF TEMPTATION AND ILLNESS
Extracts from Fernleaf Cairo
When the First Echelon arrived at Maadi, many were suffering from influenza and measles, which they had picked up during the sea voyage. There were 213 cases of influenza and 70 cases of rubella reported in the first weeks at Maadi. In February 1940 the first major outbreak of diarrhoea, or "gyppo tummy" as it came to be known, occurred.
Self-diagnosis of "crook in the guts" were common by those on sick parade during this time. Treatment was rough and ready. Lloyd Cross remembers that the dosage was either two spoonfuls of castor oil, "or they would give you number nine pills, which was more or less something that a vet would give a horse. But there was very little sympathy for those who were sick". The medical officers might not have seemed too concerned about mild cases of diarrhoea or gastroenteritis, because they knew that a bout of the disease would confer a degree of immunity on the men.
The city was a mixture of the old and the new. The new parts had wide, well-paved streets and shops such as the men were used to at home, with European shop assistants. There were modern apartment buildings and houses, some even with front lawns containing flowerbeds and shrubs. This part of town did not look too alien.
Old Cairo, on the other hand, was a real eye-opener. The narrow, dusty streets were lined with merchants' shops where anything from sewing machines to cigars were available to buy. The smell of garbage "intermingled with the odour of curry, spices and coffee, perfumed incense, and reeking, unwashed human bodies, assails any newcomer". It was also a man's world. There were few women to be seen on the streets of the old city, an absence that many of the men noted.
Although bars were generally the first priority for men visiting Cairo, the red light district around Sharia Wagh el Birket, commonly known to English speakers as the Birka, was also an alluring place to visit.
Prostitution had been legal in Egypt since 1882, and New Zealand troops in Cairo during World War I had availed themselves of the opportunities on offer. As a result, there were high infection rates of venereal disease.
The New Zealand authorities learned from this and in World War II made prophylactics available to troops, so tacitly supporting the brothels in the Birka, many of which had been established by the British Royal Army Medical Corps.
The Sharia Wagh el Birket area was of great concern to Maadi Headquarters and to the medical corps of the 2NZEF. At Maadi, the men were given lectures on venereal disease and the use of prophylactics, and were encouraged to use these if they visited prostitutes at the Birka. The men were also expected to "undertake prophylaxis ... on their return to camp if they had not already done so". Medical services also supervised regular check-ups of prostitutes in Cairo, conducted by civilian authorities.
Troops visiting Cairo were also urged to visit a permanent display at the Museum of Hygiene. Watt McEwan, a sergeant with Divisional Signals, explained that the intention of the exhibit was explicit. "One of the must-do's in Cairo was a visit to the Museum of Hygiene, which would put you off sex for the rest of your life. There were very graphic descriptions of various cases of VD".
Together, these precautions meant that the early incidence of venereal disease among the New Zealand troops were relatively low - on average only half of the available 70 beds were occupied. The centre at Maadi could treat men for most venereal diseases and return them to their units quickly.
Damning statistics, unanimous disapproval from the top and the murder of two Australians prompted the authorities to close the Birka down in May 1942.
Some of the troops blamed General [Bernard] Montgomery's influence in North Africa for this action - he had the reputation for being a puritan - and most lamented the Birka's demise. As Watt McEwan said: "The worst thing they ever did was close it ... All it did was drive the trade underground and the girls turned up in the bars and nightclubs."
* Fernleaf Cairo by Alex Hedley with Megan Hutching, HarperCollins, $36.99, will be launched on Tuesday.
All that remains of a city of 76,000 New Zealanders in the Egyptian desert are two small metal plaques.
Trending on NZ Herald
- 2 minutes to read
- 4 minutes to read