The Tunis Tummy by Roy Quinton
With the end of the North African Campaign assured when the Axis forces surrendered at Cap Bon, in early May of 1943, my Regiment received orders to make camp in some of the fields surrounding the town of Tunis.,
All seemed to be in order when “D “ Troop of 406 Battery “set to” with the task of digging in their bivouacs. The cooks “dug in” the cookhouse and our “Dan Dan the Sanitary man”, with help from “volunteers”, dug a 7 feet deep long trench, ready for
the “12 footer” to be installed astride it. For the uninitiated, the term “ 12 footer”, as was used for that contraption, at first sight appeared to be an upturned canoe , with 12 holes bored along the upturned bottom thereof. It was, of course, a wooden structure which had been made by our carpenter and which, when laid astraddle the trench, became the communal latrine. When the holes were cut, the round pieces of wood left over were then attached to the structure with leather thongs, so as to serve as lids, not just to lessen the olfactory unpleasantness but, more particularly, to create a barrier to the entry of the awful swarms of flies which continually attempted forced entries into the interior of the wooden structure, in order, thereafter, to “”zoom up” and wreak havoc with the exposed flesh of those poor unfortunates who, periodically, were obliged to sit there.
It is necessary, here, to explain that, in May, in Tunisia and Algeria, the sun is boiling hot and, whilst the flies loved it, we did not!! To try and munch our food without, at the same time, munching a few flies, was an art in itself:-somehow we managed..
The cook house had been established at a distance of about 100 yards away from what we termed the “S-house”-(latrine)…..a diabolical mistake, as it turned out!! Let it suffice to say that the cunning flies very soon established a shuttle service between the cook house and the “S-house.”and, within a couple of days, we were all “down with” what was euphemistically called “The Tunis Tummy”….it was, of course, dysentery –(perhaps not of the most dangerous kind, but bloody awful just the same.!!)
Day and night there were continual processions of men running towards the latrine area and men running back from it, seeking the comfort of their bivouacs. The reader will imagine what happened when all 12 seats were in use and other men, in agony, arrived, only to find “there was no room in the inn” These, even more unfortunate, men would rush hither and thither, far from the camp area, to seek relief wherever and however best they could, thus adding to the already dreadfully unsanitary condition of the area. A general issue of “number nines” and other medicaments made no difference at all.
Then, one afternoon, came the “Great Calamity”. Robust as the ”canoe” structure was, it was finally unable to take the strain of the unending impacts of “nether regions” on its bodywork, and the sides of the trench began to give way. I, like most of those not immediately effected, was, at that moment, leaning out of my bivouac, face totally listless, just like a dog with its head between its paws, peering out of its kennel, suddenly heard a dreadful uproar coming from the area of the latrine. Finding the strength of mind to bother to glance in the said direction, I saw, to my amazement, what looked like the stern of a torpedoed ship poking up into the air, at one end of the trench. and its prow already sinking into the depths. From “Dante’s Bolgia”-(i.e. the trench)-I heard terrible screams, interspersed with the repeated sounds of the common Army expletive:-“Kinnell”-(the English equivalent of which I shall not give, out of respect for our lady readers!!). I later learned from a comrade who had witnessed the terrible sight, that, at the moment the structure collapsed into the trench, three men were suddenly ejected from their “saddles”, the first one ending up in the “unmentionable” collected in the bottom of the trench, immediately followed by yet a fourth one. This last-mentioned, motivated by one single desire…to get out of the awful mess as quickly as he could, promptly stood on the shoulders of the one who had preceded him and, in enabling himself to grab the top of the parapet, his feet pressed down hard on his unfortunate comrade, thus ensuring that the latter also got his fair share of the “unmentionable”, all over his being!! The fifth and succeeding unfortunates just managed to jump off the structure and throw themselves to safety
The screams continued, the common refrain having then become “For God’s sake get us out of here”-(only “God” was not the word they actually used!!!). There was no way that the three poor devils, still trapped in the depths of hell, could have extricated themselves, for, as every effort was made, their feet and hands, being caked in the “unmentionable”, they just slipped back. Just then, Sgt Major Valentine Hawkes, who had happened to be there at the time, showing his usual flair in a crisis, rapped out orders for the news of the mishap to be immediately diffused throughout the Regiment, with urgent requests that all water wagons be made available. .At the same time he ordered that the ropes tied around the tarpaulins of a couple of vehicles, parked in the vicinity, be taken off and lowered into the latrine for the three unfortunates to grasp, so that they might be pulled out of the morass.
This done, however, it was soon found that the hands of the three men, being covered with “you know what”, simply slipped off the ropes. The B.S.M then ordered them to tie the ropes around their bodies, which they finally succeeded in doing, after which, they were gradually hoisted to safety.
Once on terra firma, he issued a further order for the three of them not to budge an inch from where they stood, whilst buckets of water were brought up and thrown at them. This was quite useless, for the water, making contact with the unmentionable
on their bodies, just “poured off the Duck’s back”, as it were. To add to the men’s horror, the flies were assailing them continuously, attracted by the mess clinging to them.
In desperation, SM Hawkes told them to divest themselves of their clothes and boots and to throw them on the ground in front of them, to be doused in petrol and be burnt. Luckily, it being the height of summer, we were all just wearing a pair of KD shorts,, with stockinged feet thrust into army boots. Thank God, therefore, the poor devils were, thus, not also attired in their Battle Dress, and, therefore, had no pockets to search through, to remove any personal possessions before the clothes were burnt.!!
The BSM then ordered that buckets of water be placed in front of the three men, together with a bar of soap and a towel, each, so that they might remove the worst of everything. He then had another brainwave:- he remembered that, about a half mile along the nearby road, the Americans had installed one of their wonderful mobile baths. Jumping on a motor bike, he “tore off” to ask for the Americans’ help, which they readily gave. The three men, now in their “birthday suits”, were then transported, in a 15cwt truck, to take much-needed showers, after which the Americans, with their usual generosity, gave each one a pair of clean shorts, a vest and a shirt and indicated a pile of new boots for them to select a pair that fitted., None of the three was prepared to travel back in the truck, for fear of “re-infestation”, so they walked the half mile back to the Troop area.,
In the meanwhile, back at the Troop, word had come through that the whole Regiment was to start moving to new dispositions about a mile or so away. However, as far as the Troop was concerned, those men whom the BSM had caught laughing at their comrades’ predicament received orders to drag the “12 Seater” from the morass, scrub it down with soap and water and install it in the back of “Dan Dan the Sanitary Man’s” truck for transportation to the new Troop area, and to “fill in” the trench. Their final assigned task was to clean up the truck in which the three poor chaps had been transported to the mobile baths. For some reason or other, after our move, our health improved rapidly
As a corollary to this account, the old saying about “he who laughs last” is illustrated by the fact that-(hardly surprising)-the Americans had made it quite plain that, in no way, did they want their clothing returned to them:-so the three lads slipped off to a nearby Arab village, where the inhabitants were more than willing to barter the stuff for large supplies of oranges and “oeufs”-(eggs to our readers)-which, in turn, were exchanged, back in the Troop, for goodly supplies of sweets and cigarettes.
Those of our Associate members who had the good fortune never to have had to put up with conditions “in the field”, never to have had to sleep with poisonous scorpions and millipedes trying to get at them during the night, will count themselves lucky indeed. It wasn’t just the shells, bombs and bullets that made life so miserable from time to time. I will end this dissertation by recounting a domestic incident upon my return to England and to a regular civilian job, after the war. I complained about a lack of sufficient custard on my apple pie, at dinner time, and my mother, who overheard it, remarked that nobody would have thought that I had gone through the war, with all the resultant privations, if they had heard me complaining about such a simple thing. My curt reply to that statement was to the effect that it was precisely because, for 5 years, I HAD been deprived of the comforts of home that I now wanted them, and in full!!!