WWII Excerpts from "Cairo, Biography of a City"
by James Aldridge Edited by Jimmy Dunn
Remembering what Storrs had written about Cairo at the outset of World War I, it is worth reading what that other excellent observer Alan Moorehead wrote about Cairo at war in 1939 in his African Trilogy (1944): The Turf Club swarmed with officers newly arrived from England, and a dozen open-air cinemas were showing every night in the hot, brightly lit cityWe had French wines, grapes, melons, steaks, cigarettes, beer, whisky, and abundance of all things that belonged to rich, idle peace. Officers were taking modern flats in Geziras big buildings looking out over the golf course and the Nile. Polo continued with the same extraordinary frenzy in the roasting afternoon heat. No one worked from one till five-thirty or six, and even then work trickled through the comfortable offices borne along in a tide of gossip and Turkish coffee and pungent cigarettesMadame Badias girls writhed in the belly dance at her cabaret near the Pont des Anglais.
History was laughing at itself, and once more Clot Beys brothels filled to overflowing with British Tommies. Once again, Shepheards and the Continental were jammed with staff officers with suede boots, fly whisks and swagger sticks. Once again the nightshirted street Egyptian began to invent a thousand new ways of getting a few piasters out of the pockets of these red-faced soldiers. But as it was before, so it was again the street Arab got the pickings, and the European and Levantine speculators and black marketers and the rich Egyptians and the British as well made the fortunes. But Cairo blossomed. British soldiers seeing sun and desert and clean air for the first time in their lives looked hungrily at the beautiful European girls who swished their pretty legs in the streets and on the trams and in the cafes. Many of these soldiers had come from appalling conditions in the black and grimy back streets of British cities not yet recovered from the depression. Many of them had never seen before what they now enjoyed every day in Cairo, and Cairos Europeans were generous with friendship and help. But it was not long before the relationship between the British soldiers and officers and the European girls in Cairo became an intricate and complicated entanglement which very few escaped, and many good British marriages foundered in the those soft Cairo evenings when love rushed through the city on the wings of an exotic escape.
Cairo filled steadily with soldiers other than Englishmen, Scotchmen, Welshmen and Irishmen. This time the Egyptian authorities asked that the Australians should be sent somewhere else, so they were sent to Palestine instead, but the Free French arrived and so eventually did Greeks, Czechs, Poles, Danes, Slavs, New Zealanders, Cypriots, Maltese, Palestinians, South Africans, Rhodesians, Americans and Indians. The British had two headquarters in Cairo: British Troops in Egypt (BTE), which was set up in the Semiramis Hotel on the Nile, and General Headquarters Middle East, which was given a large block of commandeered flats surrounded by barbed wire in Garden City. BTE was really part of the old British forces still occupying Egypt, mainly in the canal zone, but GHQ (ME) was the headquarters of the army that was facing the Italians and would pursue them into Libya. Of all the generals who fought in Egypt during the war, only Wavell (the first) and Montgomery (the last) always knew what was going on in the desert. Nonetheless Wavells staff officers were among the worst in their attachment to Cairo.
The sight of these thousands of officers playing their games in Cairo and living like petty princes in the clubs and around the swimming pools disturbed the British soldier in the second war far more that it had in the first one. But in fact the situation never really changed at all until Montgomery took the Eighth Army clean out of Egypt to chase Rommel across North Africa. There were, of course, brilliant and dedicated officers and generals in the desert as well as incompetent idiots, but for most of the war Cairo was occupied by an old-boy network that kept their firm grip on it to the very end.
All the local Europeans enjoyed the British presence because they benefited from it, excepting perhaps the Italians, who were interned whether they were for or against Mussolini. Egypt was technically not at war with the Axis until 1945, but she broke off diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy at the outbreak of the war. The Italians were therefore interned by the Egyptians, not by the British, because they were on Egyptian soil. But the Egyptians were not anti-Italian, so the internment regime was mild and the British didnt object to it. A fair number of local Italians were Fascists, but they made no serious attempt to help Mussolini. On the whole the Italians were probably the most popular foreigners in Cairo.
The real enemy agents in Cairo during the war were German, and the British secret police were very efficient in catching them. In I Spied Spies Major A.W. Sansom, who was in charge of one section of the British counterespionage security police in Cairo during the war, tells story after story of how clever the British were, almost always using and developing as their best agents prostitutes and petty criminals and people they deliberately got involved. Sansoms account of Cairo in the war is one of the seamiest and dirtiest ever told, but it is also one of the most honest and informed, and it reveals a great deal about British methods in keeping Cairo safe for the British presence.
Some of Sansoms officers were distinguished men, and he mentions a raid he made in Cairo with Christopher Soames, later Minister of Agriculture in the Conservative government, and later still British ambassador to France, and Churchills son-in-law. Sansom says that Soames distinguished himself while under his command when they were making a political raid on a caf in Cairo. The brother of Hussein Sirry Pasha, a former Egyptian prime minister, came into the caf for a quiet cup of coffee, Sansom says, and Soames felled him with a single crack of his swagger stick. Sansom divided his security interest in Cairo about half and half between rebellious Egyptians and German spies. Sometimes they both mixed, because many young Egyptians had no more sympathy for Britain than they had for Germany, and would willingly play one off against the other. It was Sansom, with the aid of a Jewish cabaret dancer, who unearthed a coven of German spies who came to Cairo loaded with English money and a radio transmitter and set themselves up in fabulous luxury in a houseboat on the Nile. But Cairo got the better of them. They were so delighted to be in this succulent old city with a fortune in their pockets and girls in their beds that they didnt bother too much with their espionage, and it was comparatively easy for Sansom to catch them in a dramatic raid, though not before he had gone through all the weird and shady business of plots in low cafes and tip-offs and the usual double-faced deceptions.
What was most significant about this raid however was that it led to the capture of a young Egyptian officer named Anwar el Sadat. The captured German spies would not talk, so Winston Churchill, who happened to be in Cairo, personally questioned them and offered them their lives if they would reveal all their contacts in Egypt. The Germans betrayed one of the Egyptians they knew Sadaat. He was arrested, cashiered from the Egyptian army, and imprisoned. But what the British police did not know then was that he was one of a group of young officers who had just formed the Revolutionary Committee, which would eventually seize power in Egypt.
In fact the British knew little or nothing at all about this committee of young officers right throughout its existence, and they were never able to really penetrate it. The committee was set up to get rid of the British, and though it would change its plans many times before it finally took power ten years later, it did not have much chance of success until it had a better social basis than mere Machiavellian plots against a Machiavellian occupier. And ironically, it was Britain herself who helped create this new economic and social basis for her own expulsion.
Economically the British began to need some industrial and technical help from Egypt during the war because they couldnt possibly supply even their own needs from faraway, hard-pressed Britain. Overnight great repair workshops for the army were set up in Cairo, and the British employed and trained thousands of Egyptians as fitters, mechanics, electricians, drivers and engineers. Later, when the Americans set up a vast repair depot near Cairo, they too trained Egyptians to grind lenses and repair instruments and reconstruct complicated lumps of sophisticated equipment. Not only military equipment was repaired by Egyptians, but their own trams and trains and machinery and cars and buses had to be kept functioning with what they could manage for themselves. It was nothing in those days to see a dozen boys working with primitive equipment in the back streets of Cairo duplicating in cast or on the lathe almost any part of a motor car engine.
Consumer industry also had to develop, if only to help supply the British forces. Just before the war fewer men were employed in industry (1937) than ten years earlier. The big excise duties had succeeded in wrecking local manufacture. But now Egypt began to weave its own cloth, not only cotton but silk and wool. Food processing became very important for the army, and sugar refining increased, cottonseed presses produced more and more oil, hide tanning went up to spectacular levels of production, and even Arabic films became one of Egypts major industries. But the most important advances were in mining, petroleum refining, cement, and in the new chemical and metallurgical industries.
As local industry and technology expanded, labor became far more sophisticated than it had ever been before. There were unions in Egypt where the workers were supposed to be able to organize themselves, but they were really company unions or government unions, which cooperated, so they were hardly useful to the growing labor force in the city. Yet Cairo was never quite free of strikes. In 1942 there was a series of them caused by the big increase in the cost of living while wages were low and hours were long. The police suppressed them very brutally and imprisoned hundreds of workers, but at least the genuine unions won their right to be legal. In more and more of this mass behavior the Egyptian worker was gradually changing. The British, by employing so many, were helping in fact to create a new working class in Cairo. Britain employed two hundred thousand Egyptians during the war, and of these eighty thousand became skilled or semi-skilled workers.
Nor was it only the working classes that were being added to by British war demands; Egyptian cash and capital were also accumulating. During the war British forces spent about ten million pounds in Egypt every year, and in England Egypt was accumulating huge sterling balances from her cotton payments, which cam to four hundred million pounds at the end of the war. This big accumulation of cash in Egypt and capital abroad had to have an outlet which feudalism simply could not give it, and more and more Egyptians of all classes wanted Egypt to get on with this new industrial prospect which Britain had reluctantly encouraged. There was therefore a big capitalist crack appearing down the middle of Egypts feudal face, which was obviously going to widen. But first things still came first, and it was still the war that was deciding what kind of government and life and economy Egypt would have, and what sort of city Cairo would be.
In July 1942 Rommel pushed the British back almost to Alexandria, and he was stopped at al-Alemein only because his troops were exhausted and his supply lines overextended. British trucks and soldiers and equipment poured into the Delta, and the British army retreated as far as Cairo in a disorderly panic, which became known in Egypt among the British themselves as the flap.
Not only did Cairo fill with soldiers in retreat from the desert, but resident soldiers from the various headquarters were quickly packed off to training camps, while others prepared for a total retreat from the city. The flap infected the entire population of Cairo, though the Europeans were far more upset by it than the Egyptians. British officers finally abandoned the Gezira Sporting Club to get into the queue, which stretched around several city blocks and led to the military branch of Barclays Bank, where their money was. This time it really looked like the end. British headquarters and the British Residency were literally under a cloud of smoke for days as they burned all their vital papers preparing to get out. Refugees began pouring out of the city, and Cairo railway station was a daily madhouse of soldiers and civilians and Englishwomen hurrying in overcrowded trains to Palestine or to Luxor, or heading for the Sudan. And tragically, many of the European Jews who had fled Hitler in Europe now tried to flee once more before Rommel.
Auchinleck, who was then commander in chief, finally had to move his headquarters out of Cairo, but most British soldiers laughed bitterly at this belated gesture, and in fact it meant nothing militarily. There was about a week in July when nobody knew how thins would turn out, but as al-Alemein held and Rommel failed to move forward, Cairo returned almost to normal. But it would never again be quite the place it was before this scare. In any case Auchinleck was about to be replace by General Alexander, and Montgomery was about to take over the Eighth Army in the desert.
Between August 1942 when Montgomery took over the Eighth Army and October-November 1942 when he won the decisive battle at al-Alemein, Cairo was almost a serious military city. But after al-Alemein, when the war left Egypt and disappeared like a setting European sun over the western horizons, the city lost almost all the fantasy and glamour which those balmy years of occupation had brought it. Now it settled down to its unfinished contest between the feudal-foreign regime and the young moderns, and the first requirement was still national liberation.