Monday, September 24, 2012

Teatime in the North African campaign, 1940-43

There is no beverage as definitively English as tea.  In the harsh environment of the Sahara Desert during the Second World War, the comfort of a warm cup of tea was supremely important to the soldiers of the British Eighth Army.  Tea could make foul water drinkable, and monotonous life bearable.  Jonathan Fennell noted in Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign (2010), that tea was one of the few pleasures in a theatre where, "the empty days of static warfare could melt into one indefinable consciousness." (Fennell, p.128)
Three shallow open graves containing uniformed bodies. Behind them the burial party are are looking on drinking tea.(Art.IWM ART LD 3035)Ardizzone, Edward Jeffrey Irving
The boring grind of soldiering in the desert was related in the memoir of Len Tutt.  Fennell cites a conversation that Tutt had with a fellow member of the 104th Regiment (Essex Yeomonry) Royal Horse Artillery while garrisoned at Tobruk:
'Is it Monday or Tuesday today Dump?'
'I thought it was Thursday,' I answered, 'but I'll look in the log in the Command Post.'
When I returned I said, ' We're well out.  It's Saturday'
'Yes.  But Saturday of this week or last?'  (Fennell, p. 128, as cited from L.E. Tutt "Gentleman Soldier" p. 168.)
While in some theatres of war, foraging or downright pillaging could provide a number of the supplies needed for an army, the desert provided nothing but sand.  Demand for water was especially massive.  In the days before Operation Crusader, Eighth Army was supplied with 600 tons of water daily from a 147 mile long army-built pipeline.  Daily rations were two gallons a day, but there were times when these sunk to two pints per soldier.  (Fennell, p. 131-32)

The quality of what little water was provided was poor, further emphasizing the need to flavour it with a "brew-up" of "char", or tea.  Tutt noted that it was, "foul stuff to drink in its natural form [and it was] much more satisfying to have as a brew." (Tutt, p. 201, from Fennell, p. 134)  Historian John Ellis noted that the use of gas and oil cans to carry the highly chlorinated water was a major factor in its awful taste.  Even that water uncontaminated by gas could absorb the interior coating of the containers made of paraffin wax or bitumen and benzine. (Fennell, p. 134 as cited from Ellis, The Sharp End, p. 285.)

Grant tank crews sit down to a brew near their vehicles,
 Libya, 8 June 1942. Photo Sgt Chetwyn © IWM (E 13016)
Gas was needed for brewing tea as well, and Fennell notes that a battalion could burn a hundred gallons of gas in a day for this purpose.  The so-called "Benghazi cooker", was a ration box cut so that a mix of sand and gasoline could be burned in one end and a pot brought to boil on the other.  As Fennell notes, "A match thrown from a safe distance was all that was necessary after that.  It would burn for half-an-hour with no more attention than an occasional stir with the point of a bayonet. (Fennell, p.136)

Fennell claims that improved morale was critical to the fighting performance of the Eighth Army at the Battle of El Alamein, noting that tea was one of many factors which could play a role in forming personal bonds between the men.  Ultimately Fennell argues that the primary group bond between soldiers has been overestimated in the literature and that numerous factors such as: confidence in weapons technology; supply of provisions such as water; the harsh desert environment itself; and better man-management practices in part associated with the coming of Bernard Montgomery, all contributed to Eighth Army's improved morale in the fall of 1942.
A mobile tea canteen in the forward area, 31 July 1942.  Imperial War Museum © IWM (E 15079) E
Tea itself was part of the industrial quantities of provisions required by British soldiers in all theatres.  In 1942, the British government purchased the world's entire tea crop.  Stock in Britain climbed to 30 million tons.  This is enough tea for approximately 1.5 trillion cups of desert char!  In the harsh environment of the desert, tea was a simple pleasure which could alleviate the strains of soldiering. It was more than caffeine addiction that caused one soldier to claim that, "tea had become a drug to us."  (Fennell, p. 134, as cited from Tutt, p. 201.)

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