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My two school years spent in Libya

Column by Courtney Finn, chairman of Grantham Civic Society

Between the ages of seven and nine I had two fascinating years going to a British military school in Benghazi.

My Father was a NAAFI district manager responsible for the NAAFI shops and canteens for the British forces stationed in the Cyrenaica province of Libya. He had to order supplies from the UK, organise the shipping and see that the ships were unloaded safely so that goods reached their designations. He had a weekly slot on the local forces radio to advertise what was new.

Courtney Finn as a biy in Libya. (22194282)
Courtney Finn as a biy in Libya. (22194282)

My mother, having a long-term ear problem, had been advised not to fly to join my father and so we travelled to Libya by rail and sea, being escorted by Cooks Couriers through London, Dover, Paris and Marseilles. We stopped at a few ports which included Tripoli. We walked round the harbour and bought ice creams but my mother tried to pay with a half a crown coin. This caused much hilarity and we were told to come back another day. The ship sailed that afternoon.

We lived in an apartment block which adjoined an old Italian cinema. I was able to climb up to the roof and peep over to see the films. Our apartment was opposite the harbour master’s tower and I copied his flags with cardboard ones on my small flag pole from my bedroom window. I was always waiting for a yellow flag to indicate some vile plague but this never happened.

I walked to school each day and was taught by young army education corps sergeants. In the summer we finished school early because of the heat. Benghazi harbour still had many wrecks from the second World War and we swam and played in an old barrel until the wrecks were cleared. I learned to swim very well.

The Arabs tolerated us and their ruler, King Idris, seemed to get along with military occupation forces which remained after the Desert campaign.

I learned about the fighting in the Western desert and my father bought me Brigadier Desmond Young’s book about Field Marshal Rommel. Years later I was able to have my book signed by his son Manfred Rommel. My one book interest has expanded over the years and my wife has often said, ‘Do you really need 10 books about Erwin Rommel?’

Books are catching of course.

The desert at that time was being cleared of the wreckage of war but I do recall a burnt out tank on the way out of Benghazi. My father held me upside down in the tank and there you could clearly read the message, ‘Kilroy was here’.

I remember playing in the harbour as a UK supply ship was unloaded. An Arab worker had broken open a case of whisky and was just hiding a bottle in his shirt.

I shouted ‘Dad’ and got out my toy gun and said ‘Stick em up’. I am not sure which of us was most frightened, me or the dock worker, but an armed British soldier and my father came and rescued me and the whisky. The thief was hustled away.

My parents were keen members of the amateur dramatic s and I recall them as The Bishop of Lax and Ida the maid in the lovely farce ‘See how they run’.

We went on holiday to Tripoli by an ancient Arab bus and visited the amazing Roman cities of Sabratha and Leptus Magna. We did go back to the café and finally paid for the ice creams much to the amazement of the owners. I think Arab/UK relations reached a high point that day!

After two years my Father’s service ended and we drove eastwards to Tobruk to board the troop ship ‘MV Devonshire’ for the voyage home. We visited the ancient Roman city of Cyrene (remember the account in the Bible of Simon of Cyrene carrying the Cross for Jesus?). We also went to the British war grave cemeteries at El Alamein and Tobruk.

Our journey ended sailing up the River Mersey into Liverpool. I asked my father what the green painted sheds were in the distance. He laughed and told me that was grass. I had not seen any grass for two years. I had two years to catch up to take the 11-plus exam and just about managed it in 1952.

It had been amazing experience. I wore my khaki cub uniform to the cubs back at home, but was knocked off the senior sixer’s position. I don’t know why our pack in Benghazi was called the ‘The Second Great Bitter Lakes’ pack from Egypt but it was a talking point.

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