Yusef Yusef - Dhobi Wallah

By Len A.Hynds

Thin khaki-drill uniforms were worn by all soldiers in Egypt even in winter, owing to the intense heat, and sweating being a problem, uniforms were soon crumpled and damp. Salt tablets were issued daily to counter-act the body salts lost, and uniforms had to be starched to keep them stiff and smart for as long as possible. Not a stiff starch like the old fashioned collars, but stiff enough to look extremely smart when ironed.

So soldiers in the heat of the summer would sometimes wear two KD uniforms a day. Every camp had its own laundryman or men, and they lived -in, having a separate bell tent in which they worked and slept, collecting and delivering laundry and smartly-pressed uniforms daily. Their only wage came from their customers, and they would only charge a matter of pence to wash and press items. They were experts and highly thought of, and I was amazed when I saw them spraying a garment with a mouthful of starch water in a perfect pattern before ironing it.

I had been transferred to a desert outpost, which had no laundryman or dhobi wallah as they were called, and the thirteen Sudanese Askaris of the Frontier Force did not take kindly to the daily washing of clothes, and I found it an onerous task myself. At last I received a promise of our own dhobi wallah, and set out in our 15cwt truck to make that long journey across the desert to Suez to collect him.

He was a man of about 40, but Arabs always look older, dressed in the usual biblical dress, and bare feet, a typical member of the 'fellaheen' the poor peasant class, a simple man, with an old-fashioned, trusting almost child-like way of speaking. Exactly as a poor Egyptian, in the days of the Pharaoh would have been. On that long journey as we climbed the escarpment up from Suez he sat with me in the front, and he told me of all the regiments of the British Army he had worked for, and his pride of being associated with those regiments shone through, as he spoke of their ,battles in bygone years. If ever a man was destined to be a soldier, it was Yusef.

After an hour we turned half left to skirt the Gebel Ataqa range, and the sandstorm I had been warned about sweeping in from the Sinai caught up with us, and at that stage I should have realised how serious it would become and turned back, but I pressed on until visibility became nil, and the engine stopped as the carburettor seized up with fine sand. We climbed in the back, to get away from that pervasive howling wind and stinging sand crystals being blasted at us, and covered our heads completely. Desert stotm

Eventually it eased, but it was still like a yellow London fog out there, when Yusef put his head out of the back, holding his hand up for silence. Then he said in a sudden urgency, "Voices, and camels coming towards us. We must get out effendi and hide nearby until we can see who it is. "There was something in his manner, that stopped me arguing, and I followed him over the tailboard, and we slunk away in the fog, and hid behind some shrub some 40 yards away. Five camel riders appeared, dressed in black completely, and Yusef whispered, "Bedou"

There were some Bedouin tribes that could be trusted implicitly, but others you had to be wary of. I was all for standing up and approaching them, but Yusef held me down, "Look" he said, pointing out that each had a rifle, and two were being held, and not wrapped up as they normally were.

The Bedouin saw the army lorry, partly submerged after the sandstorm, and circled it warily, then looking around at the desert. "They are going to search for us" he whispered, as two of them started to take anything from the truck that was moveable. He started to cover me with sand, and I then realised that he had slunk away into the sand fog behind us. I eased out my Smith & Wesson revolver, a mere .38 calibre, wishing I had grabbed the Sten just behind my seat, when I heard Yusef singing from an entirely different direction. The Bedouin all spun round and watched him as he approached, as he appeared with no head covering, dancing and singing as if he was mad, jumping up and down with arms waving. They all approached him with one asking questions, the others laughing at his foolish answers, and another knocked him down, where he continued to sing and try to dance.

He had been quite right, these were a bad lot, and he had drawn them away from me quite deliberately. I drew a bead on the one standing nearest him, who was holding a rifle, but behind his back I saw his hand fluttering, holding me back, as if he knew what was in my mind.

Eventually they all rode away, and luckily they had not found the sten gun, buried as it was beneath the sand, and also the tool box behind the passenger seat, so I stripped down the carburettor, and we resumed our journey.

A truly remarkable man was Yusef, a simple man, but in moments of crisis he became a true soldier.