Barkston couple reunited with Army veterans caught up in riots in Libya 50 years ago

Tom and Janet Baker, of Barkston, pictured far left, meet up with other veterans on the 50th anniversary of the riots in Benghazi.
Tom and Janet Baker, of Barkston, pictured far left, meet up with other veterans on the 50th anniversary of the riots in Benghazi.

A group of Army veterans who were based in Libya when the Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1967 have taken part in a 50th anniversary reunion.

Tom and Janet Baker, of Barkston, took part in the reunion which saw veterans of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and their families get together recently in Evesham. The veterans were based near Benghazi in Libya when the war broke out. It led to riots in the Libyan city and the American and British embassies were attacked.

The British REME camp near Benghazi became a refuge for about 3,000 people for several weeks even though the camp was only meant to hold about 400.

Tom and Janet had an 18-month-old daughter, Julie, when the events unfolded, and Janet was five months’ pregnant with their second child.

Tom said: “It was a traumatic time because we did not know what was happening. Some troops had their quarters broken into. We were very lucky. I did 12 years in REME and Benghazi was my last posting.”

Tom exaplained how Janet and their daughter were among many European civilians who were rescued from their living quarters and taken in convoy to the REME camp outside Benghazi.

Speaking about the events that day, Janet said: “We barricaded our main front door from the inside. All the wives from the bottom floor flats came up to us on the top floor, as the situation outside was getting very tense. We could see plumes of black smoke around Benghazi. We know now it was the American and British embassies which had been set on fire. One of our armoured vehicles was also set alight with our soldiers inside. I, at one time, loaded my husband’s double barrelled shotgun. With the loaded gun, I thought if the Arabs got through the front door I could shoot down the stairwell andfrighten them off. Luckily for me and them it did not come to that.”

Janet and Julie were later evacuated back to the UK.

Tom described the reunion as “absolutely fantastic”.

A few years ago, Janet wrote down her memories of those events in Benghazi 50 years ago. Here is what she recalls.

For me, Monday June 5, 1967, was like any other monday morning. We had been stationed there since February 1965. My husband 23464458 Cpl G. T.F. Baker (Tom) R.E.M.E. storeman had gone to work at 6am in D‘Aosta Barracks, leaving me and our 18-month-old daughter Julie in our flat No 9, Ashford House, a block of flats all occupied by British soldiers and their wives and children, in the centre of Benghazi. He would return approximately l.30pm to a dinner of braised steak I remember.

It was about 9am when our house boy came. He used to help me out in the flat as I had been ill with yellow jaundice, and said we were not to go out that morning as a bomb had been dropped on Cairo. As word of the troubles spread through the flats, 12 in all, we wives started to wonder what would happen to us, as the Arab students were beginning to gather in large mobs rampaging through the streets.

B.F.B.S. radio only broadcast a few hours a day, but an announcement came over. We were to get together blankets, knife, fork and spoon, baby foods, change of clothing and any pets we had. We would be picked up when it was safe to do so.

We barricaded our main front door from the inside. All the wives from the bottom floor flats came up to us on the top floor, as the situation outside was getting very tense. We could see plumes of black smoke around Benghazi. We know now it was the American and British embassies which had been set on fire. One of our armoured vehicles was also set alight with our soldiers inside. I, at one time loaded my husband’s double barrelled shot gun. He used to go out in the desert on his days off, with the lads, pigeon shooting.

With the loaded gun, I thought if the Arabs got through the front door I could shoot down the stairwell and frighten them off. Luckily for me and them it did not come to that.

What a long day. Finally around 9pm a three ton Bedford army lorry turned up for us, I was never so pleased to climb into the back of a lorry as I was that night. We locked our flat doors and left all our belongings behind, hoping they would be safe. There were several other wives on that lorry, but I can’t remember who, or the lads driving the lorry. We set off for camp D’Aosta Barracks with a water cannon spraying from side to side as we went up the main Benghazi street, What a relief to go through those main gates into camp, and then to be taken to where our husbands were waiting for us; a huge relief for them as much as us.

Reception area was camp N.A.F.F.J. where we were booked in and allocated sleeping quarters. I remember we were taken to the Sgt mess, just a large space, and loads of basic chairs, find yourselves a space, surround it with chairs, drape your towels round them for privacy and try and get your heads down till morning, and then along with my husband and child we R.E.M.E. personnel all gathered in the “Craftsman’s Arms”, our mess, where we were given bread dipped in hot bacon fat... delicious. Surprising how anything tastes so good when you are hungry.

As the cookhouse queues were almost round the block, with so many people now in camp - all wives and children and workers from the desert oil fields - we decided if the cookhouse would give us supplies we would do our own cooking for the men and families. I never knew there were so many ways you can cook corned beef and potatoes with a few cabbages thrown in. We also rigged up a shower, from a tarpaulin and a bucket suspended from the ceiling. All this took place in the inspection bay in the wksps. Tom, my husband, spent all his time cleaning toilets, but he found time to make a bed for me in his store out of dexon racking and rope, with a blanket thrown on top.

Sgt Alan Gager and his wife and two boys also slept in the other half of the stores. I had about two weeks living like this in the stores, before S/Sgt Bougie Brookes and his wife Grace took Julie and myself in. They lived in a bungalow just outside the main gates of camp. My sleeping arrangements were still precarious as they gave me a sun lounger - sit on one end and the other went up and visa-versa - but more comfortable than metal bars and rope, especially as I was five months’ pregnant with our second child.

We were able to return to our flat in Benghazi after about three weeks. Thankfully everything in our block was fine ,the braised steak dinner was still on the cooker, rather dry and a bit smelly. We tried to carry on with life as it was before the troubles broke out, but sadly it was not to be. The Arabs were very unfriendly towards us, so much so I decided I had to leave almost immediately, 10 weeks before the birth of our second child, or wait for several weeks after. I had a chat with Major Rush and Cpt Stewart and the decision was made I come back to England. Our M.F.O.boxes were packed, the washing machine was loaded on to a donkey and cart, the last I saw of it was it going down a road with more pot holes than road. As a way of thank you, the house-boy had the budgie and cage.

I flew home from Benina airport on July 1, 1967. We wives and children were taken by bus to the airport. We had to stay on the bus, till movements put the steps up to the aircraft. Once in place, it was straight off the bus and on the British Eagle aircraft flown in for us, and away. We came down in Malta to re-fuel. S.S.A.F.A. and R.A.S.C. were waiting for us in London. They helped us at the airport and got us to our trains for the last leg of our journey. I was on a train from King’s Cross to Grantham, where mum was waiting. Tom returned home in the November to see his new son, David Thomas.