Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Aviso Grille, Beirut, December 1947

A Long Weekend on Hitler's Yacht
                    Christmas 1947

After taking passage on the maiden voyage of a freighter, the good ship M.V. Domino, from the Pool of London, via an adventurous stop over in Malta, and then finally leaving the ship in Beirut in company with Bob Martin, an elderly long time dockyard supervisor with the Basra Port Directorate who was returning from leave in UK, we were told by the local Cooks Travel Agency that because of an ongoing cholera epidemic Syria had closed its borders. 
So we were stranded. The Domino had sailed away. Our path to Baghdad via Damascus was closed. And before the era of computers and easy money transfers we were almost without money. We were, in the vernacular, DBS (Distressed British Seamen).

Fortunately, after an exchange of cable messages with Basra, the Thomas Cook Travel Agency’s Beirut agent fixed us up with a paid-for inexpensive hotel and said we should come into his office each morning to get the latest news on the border crossing situation and to receive a small amount of pocket-money. 
Our ancient hotel, though far from plush, was adequate for our needs.  Apart from a few Arab gentlemen Bob and I seemed to be the only guests . We were the only ones to ever use the dining room where we were served the same food every day.  Breakfast was a plate of fried eggs, baked beans and chappati-style bread. Both lunch and dinner consisted simply of rice topped with curry-flavoured baked beans and flat bread. And strong tea. That was it. But it was adequate. My bedroom was quite large and airy, and sparsely furnished with just a bed in one corner and diagonally across in another corner, a small wash hand basin with running water. 
Of much more imposing dimensions was the adjoining en suite bathroom. In fact, it was astonishingly huge. It must have been all of 30 feet by 20 feet. And, more astonishingly, in the exact centre of the room was a western style toilet or WC. 
It was the only object in that vast space. A lonesome toilet all alone, midway between the four walls of a windowless cavernous room which was otherwise completely empty. 
Sitting on that solitary throne engendered the kind of timid nervous insecurity as would undoubtedly be generated if one was forced to attend to one’s toilet in similar fashion in the middle of a deserted Trafalgar Square. It was the ideal setting for evoking a disciplined quiet contemplation of personal life, ruminating on the absolute indifference of the fickle finger of fate, probing the philosophical reasonings of being, and other disturbing mental exercises. Sitting there in the empty vastness of timeless space, all alone, one could not but be aware of one’s absolute insignificance in the majestic pattern of things. 
In comparison with my Beirut toilet sittings, the functioning of modern astronauts during their time on the international space station must be mundane. To such a toilet should all overbearing politicians and dastardly dictators be directed to sit every day for a calming hour or more of ego-resetting.

Each morning after Bob and I had visited the Cook Travel Agency to hear again that the Syrian frontier was still closed and had picked up our daily cash pittance, we would repair to a small cafe and order the single beer each, that was all we could afford. We would sit for an hour or two making our beer last. When we told the cafe’s Greek owner of our enforced economy due to the cholera outbreak, he was sympathy itself. This because just a few weeks previously, his young son had been successfully operated on by the doctors at the Beirut American University and he made us honorary stand-in recipients of his deep gratitude to the American medical profession by not only giving us a second beer free but placing saucers of shrimp and other delicacies before us. After all, he said, it was nearly Christmas.

In the evenings we always went to the Dug Out, an underground bar beneath the Select, an elderly, French-colonial-style hotel which faced the sea on the marine front boulevard. There we managed to eke out our single precious beer or, during the first few days we were stranded, maybe even a couple. 
There were two noticeable features of the Dug Out. The first was a veritable giant of a black man who walked among the tables selling oysters from a large tray he carried on his glistening bald head. 
The other feature of note was the night club’s toilet. Typical of the strong French influence left after years of colonial status the toilet was used communally by both men and women, with that part provided for men being just inside a curtained doorway and the women's cubicles being a few steps beyond. The trouble was that though the doorless entranceway was about three feet wide its privacy curtain was only a little more than two feet wide. Thus one had a choice, by pulling the meagre curtain rungs along their track, of putting on a floor show for the people sitting at tables on one side of the room or performing for those on the other side. Anyway, it made little difference how one positioned the curtain, because just as soon as one was surrendering modesty to the delayed and increasingly urgent demands of the occasion some lady or other female heading to the cubicles would wrench the curtain to one side, make no attempt to put it back in its inadequate place and leave the performer well open to the gaze of the whole room—left, right and centre. 
Probably this was all done on purpose to entertain some customers at the expense of others as I noticed that the management and musicians seemed never to use that toilet themselves. 
But it was in the Dug Out, on Christmas Eve, when Bob and I were sitting somewhat sadly nursing our single bottle of small holiday cheer amid the noisy festive groups all around us and resigning ourselves to a meagre Christmas of more rice and baked beans, that the fickle finger of fate pointed with a much needed stab of kindness in our direction. 
This particular fickle finger belonged to an elderly, brawny and rugged character with a loud and cheery voice. It brought itself alongside me and said loudly: ‘I remember you my lad, don’t you remember me. From HMS St. Vincent? ’ during the war?, it said. ‘You were a cadet and I was one of your petty officer drill instructors.’ 
And so he had been. And here he was with a group of other seafaring men—the British officers and petty officers of the Grille, Adolf Hitler’s ex-yacht and now owned by a Lebanese millionaire, a businessman who disliked the sea and was never aboard. 
When I introduced my old wartime drill instructor to Bob Martin, another fellow seafarer of similar advanced age, they hit it off straight away and when we told him of our penniless predicament and near DBS status he took us in generous hand. He bought us beers, and then took us over to his fellow officers. He was delighted to hear I had earned my wings in Canada after leaving St. Vincent and it was his captain who then insisted that we join the Grille for the holiday, starting at once as they were all set to go back on board for their big Christmas dinner which they were having at midnight. 

And so we did and there, aboard Hitler’s favourite yacht, Bob and I enjoyed a bounty of good cheer, wonderful food and a cabin for each  of us for two whole days of merry and continuous festivity. It was one of the most fortuitous encounters with fate I have ever had. God bless all the St. Vincent petty officers. And the yacht, Aviso Grille, in which Hitler had planned to sail, in exalted triumph, up the Thames to Buckingham Palace when, as in the expectation of the rest of the world, he had brought Britannia to her knees in 1940.

                        Hitler takes the salute from the Grille, 
                                      his favourite yacht.

After, Christmas, when we went back ashore, the people at the Thomas Cook Travel Agency gave us the good news that the Syrian border was now open again. 
The bus to take us to Damascus would be leaving in the morning to connect us with the big bus to carry us over the meandering, ever deviating and shifting track across the desert to Rutba and then on to Baghdad.

No comments:

Post a Comment