The Christmas Archives

An Old Umbrella Tree

An excerpt from "A Wartime Christmas"
By Maria & Andrew Hubert
Published by Sutton Publishing 1995

Don Turner HARRY 'DON' TURNER was one of those men who never knew when they had enough. In the 1920s he volunteered for the Royal Navy, eventually leaving as a Petty Officer After a spell in Civvy Street in the Depression, he re-enlisted in the Guards, losing any credit for having been an NCO in Navy. Undaunted, he achieved the rank of sergeant-major, leaving when his time was up in 1938. He re-enlisted at the outbreak of war, joining the Signals Corps as a private. During the Dunkirk evacuation, suffered a serious blast injury and shell shock, despite which he swam for two miles before he was picked up by the Navy. Instead of being invalided out with honour at that point, he fought to regain his fitness and a front line posting.

In 1941 he was assigned to the 8th Army as a dispatch rider seeing action until late 1943, when as a result of several illnesses, he found himself downgraded to non front line duties. He finished the war as a physical training instructor with the rank of sergeant, at Catterick He died in 1988 having endured bone cancer with the same stoicism that had marked his service career. Here he describes a Christmas spent in Egypt, with a rather makeshift Christmas tree.

I was some distance from the front line that Christmas. The British had advanced easily against the Italians, before being driven back by Rommel's Afrika Korps almost into Egypt.

The front line was a bit scattered, or at least the bit nearest me. I spent most of December 1941 helping to dig vehicles out of the sand, digging my own bike out, getting soaked by sudden downpours wearing only khaki drill shorts, getting soaked by sudden downpours drill shorts, and trying to keep the flies out of my food.

Rations in the desert weren't that good. At HQ in Cairo though, the officers seemed to be having a good time with plenty of drinks.

On Christmas Day itself, I had to take a message to a forward unit from Cairo. It was some distance into the desert. I got there in the early afternoon, and was given a piece of cold Christmas pudding with some jam on it, while I was waiting for a reply. I remember that the officers and men were all gathered together round the canteen tent. It was quite cold, and I was glad that some heavyweight kit had caught up with me. Some of the chaps were wearing barathea jackets and shorts, while some of the blokes from the armoured car unit looked a bit odd with sheepskin jackets and long shorts.

Everyone was playing whist. There wasn't much else to do. They had tried to decorate for Christmas using strips of fabric and bandages as decorations. There were a few bits of signalling ribbon that had been used as well.

The funniest thing of all was the Christmas tree. Someone had found an old umbrella without any fabric on it, and had half opened, stuck it in a bucket of sand, and put one straggly piece of tinsel round it! I had some foil saved from tobacco packets which I added to it, and another visitor brought some cotton wool, to make to make snow on the 'branches'. Whenever someone else arrived they put an extra piece on it. By the time I had to go it looked very festive.

As each bloke left, a new arrival would take over his cards, so that the game could carry on. I didn't see any money changing hands, any betting was done with cigarettes or tobacco. One bloke had some oranges that he had 'liberated' to use as a stake, but when he was called, threw his remaining oranges to all of us. That was a real bit of Christmas spirit. I think that the oranges were the best Christmas treat of all, because the sand got in everywhere, even into the tea! The oranges had that shiny skin to keep the sand out, they didn't attract the flies, and they were very, very juicy!

I had other wartime Christmases after that, but it was back in England with all the rationing. I think those blokes in the desert made Christmas happen for themselves. No one else was going to do it for them!