Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

Julian Putkowski interviews Dave Wallis

Backwards from Wivenhoe to Cairo

The Eighth Army and the Second World War

THIS interview with the British novelist and ex-Communist Dave Wallis was directed and recorded in the Essex village of Wivenhoe during early June 1983. In 1939, a few weeks after Britain finally declared war on Nazi Germany, Dave Wallis abandoned his job with the Automobile Association Foreign Touring Department in London and registered for National Service. It was not an easy decision for 22-year-old Wallis, because he was a member of the Young Communist League, and although he opposed fascism, he also entertained reservations about becoming involved in what the British Communist Party (CP) leadership had been directed by Stalin to condemn as an imperialist war. [1] Wallis was called up in early 1940 and sent to Catterick Camp, where he trained as a signaller. He was posted overseas in March 1941, and shipped to Egypt, where he saw active service and was wounded. In 1942, after being discharged from hospital, Wallis was stationed in Maadi (Cairo), where he became friendly with Bernard and Molly Rice. The Rices, who were local artists residing in Maadi, introduced Wallis to both local Egyptian and émigré Communists, including Henri and Rosette Curiel. [2]

In what was otherwise a personally candid interview, Wallis avoided naming names. [3] He was also discreet about both the volume of political and intelligence material he gathered during his signalling work at headquarters and the individuals to whom he relayed copies. He also appears to have been quite modest about his other activities, neither referring to his own key rôle as the individual who arranged the Maadi Conference, nor his contribution to the stormy political debate which took place at the gathering. [4] No less importantly, Wallis makes no reference to the reasons why Curiel’s Mouvement Democratic pour la Liberation Nationale was not represented at the conference. [5]

However, Wallis’ testimony draws attention to important political decisions that confronted articulate political activists serving in the ranks of the Eighth Army during the Second World War. [6] Initially, he and other comrades exercised an elastic interpretation of Communist Party policy, which stipulated that the class struggle was to be suspended until after the war was over. Yet by the end of 1944, in spite of his personal detestation of racism and his close association with the Curiels, Wallis opted to support the party’s abandonment of support for anti-imperialist, national liberation struggles. [7]

Shortly after the Maadi Conference, the Army dispatched Wallis to Europe. He was stationed in Germany when the war ended, and he was demobilised in 1946. A few years after the war, Wallis resigned from the Communist Party, but he maintained personal links with his wartime comrades and recorded his feelings and experiences in Cairo in his novel Tramstop on the Nile. Dave Wallis subsequently joined the Labour Party and became a bitter critic of the Communist Party’s authoritarianism. [8]

Julian Putkowski

DW: Any discussion was frowned upon – politics should be left to politicians – the King’s army must and shall come first. The actual level of indoctrination dished out to the troops was pathetic – later it became much more sophisticated … We were, for example, paraded on this wretched troopship, and told that we should behave ourselves and not get drunk in the streets of Port Said, and so on, because we were the ‘guests of the King of Egypt’ … We were given, when we came to Catterick … the ordinary pamphlet that was dished out to new recruits … which was called How the Empire Happened. It said that we tried to help people and all that, and gradually acquired most of the globe, and it was our duty to defend it … As soon as you met another Labour Party member or another activist or another YCLer, we all used to say the same thing – will there, ever again in human history be an occasion when you can work like this? It was like a prison without the warders … Really, for getting discussion going, and for promoting their socialist propaganda, I can’t imagine any better conditions than a troopship or a barracks … those of us in the forces were quite at odds with the official [Communist] Party line. The official party line was to be a good soldier, fight the Germans and get the war over, and swallow any kind of junk in the process – which to some extent made sense. It was, after all, an attitude not confined to Marxists … To ‘defend the bad against the worse’ … succinctly describes the dilemma of any progressive, never mind Marxist, within the British armed forces during the Second World War. If you are asked to help disperse a crowd of Indian Nationalists by rifle-butts, do you then refuse and go to prison? Or do you see the broader picture that you’re there to help defeat Nazi Germany, indirectly? It was an intolerable dilemma at times, really intolerable.

JP: In Egypt … what sort of reception did you get from the locals …?

DW: One must, in fairness to the British Tommy’s racism, say that, of course, inevitably, what section of the population of a semi-colonial country does he meet? He meets the beggars and the pimps, and the bootblacks and the thieves … I only stayed [in Cairo] for a brief period – I caught sandfly fever and was slightly wounded, and was sent back out of the desert [back] to Cairo [in] … late ’42, ’43 … Cairo was an extremely interesting city. It had always been very cosmopolitan. While the Desert War was going on, it was the only place where the British were, in fact, fighting the Germans, so this made it important. The big international conferences took place there, between Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin, and so on. It became a centre of every kind of intrigue … it was a real melting pot …

JP: You came into contact with party members from other countries?

DW: Yes, King Street nearly went mad over this, and rebuked us very severely, and so on, and wanted to disown us. [9] … There was slowly built up a thing called the Middle East Forces’ Anti-Fascist League which was, of course, an umbrella organisation. It did include one or two people who were not card-carriers, and at its peak it was a very all-embracing organisation indeed. We had a member of the executive of the Australian ‘Party’ there, the assistant general secretary of the New Zealand ‘Party’. [10] We had all kinds of Polish, French, local civilians who were working with the forces. We had a really international league there, and we used to meet fairly regularly and exchange information. We printed our own information sheet, which was just called Information … I used to get copies of Labour Monthly and the Daily Worker through the network in the RAF delivery system, long before the British Embassy or the official information services. If there was an important political article in The Times, it wasn’t sent air-mail to me, it was sent by hand through our network, which we had built up in the RAF. [11]

JP: How extensive was that?

DW: Quite extensive, but, of course, through the movements of war and people getting posted and so on, it was always breaking down, but we would reform it …

JP: The anti-Fascist group … how long did that last for?

DW: I would say that it was given birth in about late 1942, and by mid-1944 it was already dying away, or changing its character very sharply. You see, after the invasion of Italy, Cairo suddenly became a backwater, militarily … but to some extent the rump of this organisation never went out of existence … We took the most childish and stupid risks. I think we’ve got to say two things. First of all is, by and large, with the exception of Greece and of course, giving assistance to the Egyptians, there was nothing in what we were saying that did not fall in with the immediate interests of the Churchillian section of the ruling class … We wanted to see German Fascism defeated, so did, officially, British Intelligence. So if they captured our documents, they didn’t want to waste a lot of resources trying to find out where they’d come from. When they did try and find out they were pretty wildly wrong … It was inconceivable to them that there could be British Communists who could actually produce newspapers and information documents … We were ‘other ranks’. We were, ipso facto, incapable of thought, let alone independent action. They tended to concentrate on East European émigrés … who were far more adept and far more used to surveillance than the people who were trying to find out about them …

JP: The Army started up its own education programme …

DW: Yes … I think they were worried, not only about what was happening at the time, but they were worried about what was going to happen in the postwar world. Churchill … loathed the Army Bureau for Current Affairs and … the Army Education Corps because they used to run discussion groups, and he said they were hot-beds for socialist propaganda … The old boy was right, they were. It was a sitting-duck to any trained YCL or any experienced socialist to be allowed to sit in on a discussion, in army time, in army accommodation, discussing such topics as How Can Unemployment be Avoided in Britain in the Future?’ I mean, what a gift!

JP: Did the Army supply any material?

DW: Yes … the ‘ABCA’ pamphlets, which were produced by bright young dons in the forces, the usual thing. There was an awful lot of discussion about the Beveridge Plan, for example. The foundations for the Welfare State were being laid, and the report had appeared.

JP: Who were the officials of ABCA? … What were the ones like that you encountered?

DW: Well, I worked closely with only two of them. One was a CP member. [12] Of course, he worked closely with us – and the others I would say they were rather opportunist and inclined to thank God – it’s a hell of a lot better running a discussion group than landing, after dark, on the Normandy beaches and getting shot at … They sincerely regarded it as their duty to stimulate discussion and have a balanced view, and all this kind of crap – the worst of them. Of course, the best of them were active socialists and Marxists.

JP: Where were you quartered in Cairo?

DW: I was under canvas out at Maadi.

JP: Did it offer the same opportunities as you had on board ship, in terms of discussions and activism?

DW: Not as much, not nearly as much … Of course, my main fear was not of the penalties but that I would get caught in incriminating circumstances that would incriminate others … I got on shifts, 24 hour shifts, eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, or four in the afternoon to eight at night until midnight, and midnight till eight in the morning. And every so often … I was entitled to two days off because I had done so much night-shift. So, this situation was absolutely ideal for things like meetings and little conferences … I read all the British Intelligence reports on morale and so forth, and Communist propaganda in the armed forces … I read all those because they were typed by a member of our organisation … I was privileged to read the main LTP [Long Term Planning Report]. [13]

JP: The Cairo Parliament …?

DW: I want to disabuse you of any impression that this was some kind of mutinous or revolutionary organisation. It was not! There was an organisation called ‘Music For All’ in Cairo … The title meant … that whatever rank you were, music was universal. They did things like putting on concert parties; there was a production of Merry England. All this had official approval, because it gave the troops something to think about, other than drinking beer or going round the brothels, or moaning and groaning in their tents. [14] It was regarded with official approval … it was an intellectual form of concert party. Of course, it developed. Discussion circles and debating societies started … Some bright sparks extended the debating society idea and said, let us have a Mock Parliament … alongside the musical activities of the concert parties … It was frowned upon by the Official CP … because the official line was that until Germany was defeated that we should do nothing at all except be good soldiers and fight the Germans. [15] I was in at the birth of it, but was not one of the initiators. I wasn’t important enough, and in any case, I was knee-deep in other intrigues. Well, of course, the inevitable happened … a left Labour ‘Government’ was elected on a card which nationalised the Bank of England and proclaimed a Peoples’ Republic, and abolished the monarchy. At this point Brigadier Chrystal, the Brigadier in charge of Army Education, stepped in and closed it down … [16] YCL factions … at 120 degrees in the shade, Fahrenheit, if I might just make that point – what for any sane human being would have been a siesta hour – endlessly discussed whether we should fight the decision, and reform it. There was even a faction that said we should reform a ‘Parliament’ illegally …

JP: How long did it last for?

DW: About six months …

JP: Was it organised so that you actually reported back the debates?

DW: Oh yes … once a fortnight there would be the ABCA discussion groups, which were supposed to be run by your own officer – who’d been on courses learning how to do it – and there I’d give my report back on these ‘parliamentary’ debates … [and] a summary was printed in the Egyptian Gazette at the time … [17]

DW: They were referred to as the ‘Honourable Member’, for wherever it was … The ‘Prime Minister’ of it was quite an orthodox, almost right-wing Labour fellow, although the Labour Party, as a whole tended to be more left in these days. [18] When we were busted-up, he was … sent to Haifa, and put on a signal station on top of a mountain … and saw the war out quite comfortably … I was not posted away from Cairo. It was a deliberate [YCL] decision that I should not become a leading light.

JP: What was the attitude of frontline troops to the ‘Parliament’?

DW: We tried to tell them as much as possible. This was also the year of the wall newspaper … a huge notice board would appear either in the canteen, the NAAFI or in some cases outside the Company Office itself. It was full of dirty jokes and sentimental poems about England, and, of course, political propaganda. They … were inevitably edited by, guess who? I mean, who the hell else? Where we got good people who knew what they were doing, we did manage to achieve the next step. We argued … it’s only the blokes that are back in base that can read it, so … we took photocopies of it, micro-photocopies – which were sent to our units that were actually fighting in Italy and elsewhere.

JP: How did you manage that?

DW: With official permission. We said they want to see copies of their home wall newspaper. Damn it all, it’s got the regimental crest. We put it that they were looking to their base-camp (which they loathed!) as a home from home. You know, they were loyal to their own and wanted to hear the gossip, and how 3 Company’s football team got on … We printed all the sports stuff and jokes … and we reported the concert-parties and everything else. We weren’t fools … This is how we printed reports of the ‘Parliament’. And then where we got people who knew what they were doing, we extended it. First of all, microfilms were taken of the wall newspaper, sitting on its wall in the Egyptian sun. From that we extended it to duplicated reproductions – and from that we produced magazines which circulated among the Forces. They were typed by Marxists and edited by Marxists, and distributed by the official British Army – and they were typed on British Army stencils on British Army typewriters, and run off on British Army duplicating paper! This is what we had been working for all along, but inevitably … we over-reached ourselves. There’s no doubt about it – the whole thing was leftist. I suppose it could be argued that King Street was right and we shouldn’t have done it.

JP: What was King Street’s attitude to the ‘Parliament’?

DW: Horror! Horror!

JP: Completely?

DW: Yes, ‘leftist’ … Well, when they realised the extent of it and how popular it was, and the fact that the Daily Mirror protested about its closing-down … then they had to trail in, didn’t they? Following … the masses rather than leading them.

JP: How many YCL or how many CP members were there elected to the ‘Parliament’?

DW: Openly as Communists, do you mean? Not many …

JP: At what point did the Army start taking initiatives to crack down …?

DW: When there was a bill tabled to make Britain a republic. When all these nationalisation bills had gone through, then it was quite obvious that the thing had become just a vehicle for the promulgation of Labour and socialist ideas. I think the turning point was when the troops started to actually … use it as forum for grievances – which is what we worked towards. When questions were asked of the ‘Foreign Secretary’ about the rôle of British troops in Greece, and … whether the British occupation of Egypt would continue after the war … [19]

JP: Were there any sympathies expressed by the ‘Parliament’ in relation to the Egyptians?

DW: No … Once or twice in the last 30 years I’ve been accused of being a kind of left T.E. Lawrence, as it were, although I didn’t speak Arabic, and having a romantic attitude towards Arabs, because I retained the friendship of one or two Egyptian intellectuals … I don’t see it like that … My attitude was that if I had been sent to India, I would hope and pray that I would still have Indian friends – that if I had been sent to Zambia that I would still have African friends. I was anti-imperialist and tried to live up to that. The official Marxist line at the time was very neglectful of the … national liberation movement. Not much attention was ever paid to it by the left in this country, and least of all during the war …

JP: What was the attitude of the Egyptians towards you generally …?

DW: Yes, well, one hopes that it slowly improved as the war went on. We may have done a tiny bit towards it, but I mean, what would their attitude be? These were the people who were occupying their country.

JP: Did they make a distinction between the officers and the men?

DW: I don’t think so, any more than the men had a better attitude towards what they called ‘the wogs’ than the officers did. The overwhelming majority of British troops, and including those who called themselves Labour Party members, were just as disgustingly racialist as their officers – in fact, in some cases worse – because you had Arabist officers, who had studied Arabic and who had got degrees in Arabic Literature, who at least had some kind of respect for the Arabic language and the Arabic cultural traditions …

JP: The American troops in Cairo … did they relate to the ‘Parliament’?

DW: They were not involved at all.

JP: Not in the Middle East Anti-Fascist Group either?

DW: Oh yes. Al himself was a member of that – we had two American members. [20]

JP: The American troops … were they any more liberal in their attitude toward the Egyptians than the British …?

DW: I would say they were marginally better. They didn’t equate it with their own anti-negro … hysteria … (the South Africans did, on the other hand). No they just regarded it as rather like Mexico, or somewhere ‘Goddam hot stinkin’; filthy country full of goddam hot, stinkin’, filthy dagos’. [21] They never took over the word ‘wog’, from the British, which was interesting – they called them ‘gippos’ or ‘Arabs’. [22]

JP: How about the Australians?

DW: Well, of course, the Australians were removed from the Middle East in early ’44, and sent back to fight the Japanese, because it was felt that they would fight better if they were fighting … in defence of their own homeland … the Australians had this reputation for wildness, which they had inherited from their fathers’ generation, and tried to live up to it, doing stupid things like overturning trams and so on … They were much less consciously racialist than the British ‘Tommy’, more easy-going.

JP: Did the Army, at any point, attempt to correct, by its education programme, the racism …?

DW: No … even at the risk of sounding solemn and pompous – I want to tell you one of the decisive moments in my life. Within a week of landing in Egypt, I had already got all the ‘right’ ideas on racism, and in fact, before I ever joined the YCL. I read Bernard Shaw prefaces to Saint Joan and John Bull’s Other Island, and so on … [23] Although I had a YCL card, I was absolutely green in politics … I was a romantic … with dreams of universal brother­hood, and so on – with a certain level of political sophistication as well, but really very little. I was brought on parade at [Dikla?] Camp in late April ‘41, and this incident has always lingered in my memory. It was decisive, it was one of the turning points in my life, I think. We were stood ‘at ease’ and a fatherly old regular sergeant-major came out. Now I want to emphasise the type of man … I’m told by people with experience that you can even meet them in the prison service. Any authoritarian ideas that they might have had, any personal sadism they may have had, any power complexes have long since been lost in the general defeats of middle age. For one reason or another, they have once again … become human beings. You would even meet regular sergeant-majors like this – generally heavy drinkers, but tired men who just wanted to get by, who knew perfectly well that life had very little for them or indeed, from their point of view, very little meaning … He stood us ‘at ease’ and moved us into the shade, which was a humane thing to do. And he took this as a cue for giving us his fatherly … ‘new recruits in Egypt’ lecture – about staying out in the sun too much, that’s why he’d moved us into the shade. ‘If you have to go to the brothels, for God’s sake go to the army-approved ones, and go to the Prophylactic Station immediately afterwards. And he made feeble little jokes about it – you can imagine the type of joke – but he did it in a benign and fatherly fashion … He warned us of drinking too much cold beer on a hot day, even if we could afford it, and it was best, after all, to drink British imported beer in the canteen ‘And I’m not just saying this because I’m the sergeant major responsible for the canteens – really some of this cold wog lager is gnats’ piss, and you shouldn’t drink it’, and so on and so on. And that if we had some personal problems at home, ‘Don’t be afraid to come and see me; don’t be afraid to put in to see your Company officers – they’re decent enough fellows …’ In the course of all this fatherly talk, he said: ‘Now then, especially you drivers, just a word of advice. Traffic’s very chaotic in Cairo – so, if you do happen to knock down a wog, stop and back over him and finish him off. It’s much the best thing to do. The British will pay compensation to his widow – more than she would ever earn in a hundred years. It saves a lot of form filling … If you injure a fellow, you’ve got to be responsible for getting him to a civilian hospital. You can’t take him to a British Army hospital – the civilian police are involved.’ He said: ‘You wouldn’t believe the paperwork you’ve got to go through, and you might end up on a charge anyway.’ ‘So’, he says, ‘my advice is, if you knock a wog down, stop, back over him and finish him off.’ … I thought it was decisive moment in my life because I was so boiling with … with a boyish rage … I damn near walked off that parade, on the spot. But discipline tells … and I stood there … I was in such an emotional state, I nearly fainted, and he would have put it down to sun-stroke. Then I thought about it, for hours afterwards – have been thinking about it for 30 years, but I reached the conclusion within the first hour of thinking about it, which I haven’t really fundamentally altered. This is the face of the enemy. The enemy is not some kind of Eichmann or some kind of sadistic lunatic brooding in a black uniform with a whip. No, this is the face of the enemy – the acceptance of received ideas, even by kindly, gentle, defeated men – this is what’s got to be altered, this is the enemy. It made me think much more deeply about the propaganda slogans and the general humanitarian clichés which I had in my brain. They really took flesh for me at that moment, and I would say that my attitude towards my four and a half years in Egypt was determined at that moment. One hopes that, without it, I would have remained faithful to socialist principles … but it would have been in a pompous, cliché-ridden fashion …

JP: How many other people felt like that?

DW: None: Absolutely none. There was, at times, this appalling feeling of isolation, but later I realised that this is never true. This is why I never make fun of the Christian religion, because the only other people, apart from Marxists, I ever met that strove to bridge this impossible relationship of occupied and occupier, were deeply Christian people.

JP: What about the padres and the chaplains?

DW: Oh, they were just a joke …

JP: The Egyptians … what sort of support did they actually get from people like yourselves?

DW: Oh, considerable.

JP: Supplying them with information that Army Intelligence had collected?

DW: Yes, and we held regular collections and gave them money. [24]

JP: And that was money coming not just from your own politically active group, but also from troops generally …?

DW: No, no. Oh, good heavens no, just from the politically active … I suppose about 30 or 40 …

JP: You must have been always conscious of the likelihood of being caught …?

DW: The only time the strain was really intolerable was during the events surrounding Greece and the Greek Mutiny … We did not know of the existence of the Churchill–Stalin Agreement, which was to hand over Greece to the British … Sometime in early ’44, it became obvious that the nature of the war was changing and that the main aim of the Allies would be to make sure that the resistance movements didn’t take over the countries of Europe after the war. It became a political battle. The issues now became extraordinarily complex, and I doubt if the truth of any particular incident will ever be known. No written records were taken of vital conferences. A lot of people have been killed, and a lot of memories have faded. So that’s the general background about this period … On the face of it, it was as if there was a secret agreement with the Germans that we would only go into Greece as the Germans withdrew … to smash the left-wing resistance movement and bring back the King … The Greek émigré army was in Egypt … they were subjected to terrible provocation; they were paraded in the sun; their army officers said: ‘Don’t imagine that when we get back in Greece that you’re going to have any say in the matter. You’re all going to be shot.’ Quite a large element of the Greek émigré Army in Egypt … were supporters of ELAS … All the officers were Royalists, extreme right-wing Royalists, Monarcho-Fascists, as the jargon had it at the time … So eventually they mutinied, which was a mistake … and then the rest is history, isn’t it? … [25] They drew up a marvellous document – which we helped them with the wording of the English version of it – saying that they’d placed themselves unreservedly under the command of the British Middle East Command, and could they please be sent home to fight the Germans, or, failing that, could they be sent to Italy to fight the Germans and that they would obey any British order that was given them, provided that it meant that they could fight and liberate their own homeland.

JP: What was the response of the authorities?

DW: They blockaded the camp … just west of ‘Alex’ [Alexandria]. They slipped up badly – the main water supply for further west went through the camp so they couldn’t shut off their water without shutting off everyone else’s water … They [the British] just blockaded the camp and waited for them to give in.

JP: How many Greeks were involved in this?

DW: Oh, about three or four thousand, I suppose. The ringleaders were later arrested and subjected to very harsh treatment indeed … by the British on behalf, of course, of the Greek High Command. [26] The ringleaders were later sent to the Andaman Islands, in the Indian Ocean – a favourite dumping ground for British imperialism.

JP: The blockade wasn’t complete … there were supplies brought in … You were stretched to the limit, presumably?

DW: Well, we had to maintain our cover as being loyal British Tommies … I don’t want to sound romantic, but the situation would be comparable to that of a German anti-fascist in the German Army in Russia …

JP: Did they have arms? Could they have actually resisted?

DW: Yes, they could have … It would have been a futile gesture … When they actually got to Greece, we got out an illegal leaflet. Also, this is all a bit grim, so you might like to hear an amusing incident. The Americans had a huge and very well equipped, air-conditioned base. As you can imagine, palatial compared to the conditions the British were living in, and every evening at six o’clock they used to foregather in the open-air cinema, and the news was read to them – the bulletins of AFN (the American Forces Network) – plus items of local news, plus items of the local baseball matches, and so on … It was actually read by a professional news-reader, a girl, who had been a radio news-reader in civil life, and was now in the American Information Services … she just read whatever was put in front of her. So, we put in front of her, on properly headed British Ministry of Information paper, ‘Today British Forces invested the so-called mutinous Greek forces, and don’t believe any rumours to the contrary. Here is a copy of the statement issued by the mutinous group.’ And she read it out … read it right through.

JP: What was the response of the troops …?

DW: Well, I’m afraid, none. British Intelligence went through the bloody roof, but they needn’t have worried. The guys just sat and listened to it and chewed on. They weren’t really interested in Greeks anyway. What do you expect from Greeks? That’s the sort of thing they would do – mutiny. I think the other thing that wants saying is that we were technically rather pushed at the time. We were anxious always to vary our typewriter faces … because you can trace the typewriter. We had a little rota system going; it was all organised. Then we were faced with getting out as many leaflets as we could, but wasn’t a matter of just little information sheets to circulate among ourselves, nor did it bear much resemblance to the leaflet … addressed to British troops … We set ourselves a target of getting at least 5.000 of these things done. Well how the hell could we do it, and arrange it physically? … Al, who was an American Master-Sergeant, typed the skins [stencils], went into the official US Army duplicating pool and handed them in, and just said, ‘I want 5.000 run off.’ ‘Gee, that’s a hell of a lot. You’ll not get them today.’ ‘Alright’, he says, ‘how about six o’clock? I’ll pick them up, personally.’ Whereupon, this girl said, ‘Sure’, and … and they were just run off, and nobody in that duplicating centre read it …

JP: In Athens, about the same time, there was another mutiny, wasn’t there … in the British forces. Did you have any connection with that or did you hear about it?

DW: Yes. It wasn’t a very political one. But in our leaflet we stuck to the simple line that blokes should put in, through official channels, for a posting to Italy. Some, of course, did. The main trouble with the forces that were in the Middle East was that by this time they bitterly resented the fact that they’d been over four years without any home leave … We got the Daily Mirror, which was always just the same in those days as it is today – exactly the same – vulgar and opportunist and populist … they started a thing going round … After that, there was considerably more local leave granted.

JP: You … were actually, personally, under surveillance, by the Army …?

DW: Oh yes. I was warned, unofficially, once. There was a very decent fellow called … Captain Armstrong … He had been a civilian telephone engineer in Egypt when war broke out … He was my Company Commander … He didn’t say ‘wall newspaper’ (460 was our regimental number, so it was called ‘Four Sixty’), just as he was turning away, he said: ‘Don’t let Four Sixty get too Bolshie, Wallis.’ …

JP: But you weren’t conscious any time of somebody, say being posted into your unit, specifically to keep an eye on you?

DW: Oh, good God, yes … some of them were so funny … a keen young YCLer [‘Al’] … in the RAF technical branch of the RAF … [27] The blokes were in the workshops, most of the time and they stayed out of the Egyptian sun, during working hours, and they tended to be paler faced. This fellow … came back to his tent one day. ‘Oh there’s a new bloke been posted to your tent.’ ‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘where is he?’ Red faced, six feet tall, regular soldier stamped all over him … he says: ‘I’m an engineer, I’m going to work in workshop number so and so.’ ‘Oh yes’, says Al, and got chatting to him. The man had Military Police stamped all over him. Anyway, Al went and had a beer with him, and got to know him, and talked about the old country, and talked about Blighty, and charmed him … Over the period of about a fortnight or a month – as quick as that – he had so charmed this fellow that the fellow owned up. He said: ‘I feel a bit stupid; it’s the first real job – I’ve just been concerned with the black market and stopping the wogs nicking stuff.’ He said: ‘I don’t know anything about this Bolshie business, but if I don’t send in some reports I’ll be in trouble.’ So Al says: ‘I’ll write them for you.’ ‘Oh thank you’, he says. So some very highly coloured accounts of Communist infiltration in the Cairo were all were sent through by this bloke … We couldn’t resist it and we just made it fantastic, we let them know it … We said that we would reveal a secret list. ‘Give me a few days’, says Al, ‘and I’ll give you a secret list of high up Communists.’ We then went round all our blokes … ‘Who’s the biggest bastard officer you know, that you really loathe?’ And we gave them … these names.

JP: And that’s the point, presumably, where it all got blown.

DW: Yes … we should have restrained ourselves …

JP: Just generally, it strikes me as being amazing that you were able to operate so freely, relatively speaking …

DW: Well, there was infinitely less pressure than on anybody that was a member of a Resistance movement in Europe; infinitely less, it doesn’t compare the risks … I think the only time we could actually have been summarily shot, virtually without even the bother of a court martial, was during the actual Greek events. You see, a complication here is, although we were well aware of it at the time, although not all the details of it were known to us … there was quite a section of the Egyptian Officer Corps who were pro-German and pro-Italian, on the grounds that they were anti-British … [but] the fact is that a section of the intelligentsia thought that their main enemy was British and French imperialism, it’s what they had always been brought up to believe and could see with their own eyes, anyway. Added to which, there was a theory – now whether or not it was a Trotskyist theory or [supported by?] certain elements of the CP, at the time – that whatever happened, British and French imperialism would be greatly weakened … And that, inevitably, German Fascism, even if it was universally victorious, would not be able to resolve its own internal contradictions, and that sooner or later the weight of American industrial power and numbers, must tell; that American industry and Russian blood would defeat the Germans, whatever the hell the British and French did. So that it could be argued, that where … national liberation movements appeared to stand no chance at all, that they might be at least as well off, if not better off, under German imperialism for a few years, until the collapse of Germany … It was an extremely dangerous theory, extremely dangerous, which I combated at the time … One mustn’t forget that [Anwar] Sadat did in fact try and get in touch with Rommel, and said that he would assist the German capture of Egypt, provided Hitler would give a guarantee for the independence of Egypt. [28]


1. Adherence to Moscow’s diktat fractured the British CP leadership until 1941, when the Wehrmacht’s Operation Barbarossa summarily ended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. See Francis Beckett, Enemy Within, London 1995, pp. 90–101.

2. Interview, D Wallis, Sound Records Department, Imperial War Museum (IWM). For the Curiels, see also G. Perrault, Un Homme a Part, Paris 1984.

3. Most of those to whom Wallis refers are named in Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers: Communist Armed Forces in WWII, London 1985.

4. At the Conference of the Middle East Anti-Fascist League, held at Maadi in late 1944–early 1945, about 40 delegates debated the future rôle of the Communist Party. Interview with S.V. Bardell, Sound Records Department, IWM; Kisch, op. cit., pp. 99–104.

5. Hillel Schwartz, who headed the rival ‘Iskra’ group and who was formerly a close comrade of Curiel, criticised the latter for being a dilettante. Kisch (op. cit., p. 101) also refers to Staff Sergeant Sam Bardell (married to Henriette Arie, who managed the Curiels’ Rond Point bookshop) ‘not appearing to be one of the dominant influences’ at the conference.

6. While in Egypt, Wallis was promoted to Corporal.

7. Wallis, IWM, op. cit.

8. Kisch’s The Days of the Good Soldiers acknowledges a contribution from Wallis, but omits to record both his disaffection with Stalinism and his abrupt and premature termination of the interview he granted Kisch.

9. The headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain was in King Street, Covent Garden.

10. Bardell, op. cit., states that the Maadi Conference was organised by Wallis.

11. Coordinated by Corporal Michael Katanka, serving as a clerk attached to Headquarters, RAF Transport Command Group 216, Heliopolis.

12. Staff Sergeant Sam Bardell, Royal Army Service Corps (Kish, op. cit., p. 39).

13. Wallis was serving with No. 3 Signals Company, General Headquarters.

14. ABCA Policy document, CJS/1/265, cited in Kish, op. cit., p47.

15. Pte Michael Katanka: ‘We were not in the game of playing revolutionaries for the sake of revolution. We had no intention of playing the game of anyone hoping for a change to provoke some damaging plot to undermine the war effort.’ (Kish, op. cit., p. 48)

16. For details, see Kish, op. cit., pp. 55–65.

17. First published in 1789, the Egyptian Gazette remains Egypt’s longest-established English-language daily newspaper.

18. Private Henry Solomons, Royal Army Pay Corps, an anti-fascist, trade union activist, Stepney councillor (Kisch, op. cit., pp. 63, 68–9), and later MP for Hull.

19. For a brief account of the Cairo Soldiers’ Parliament, see Kisch, op. cit., pp. 47–65.

20. Sergeant Al Kuchler, USAF.

21. ‘Dago’, a derogatory term used by racists, referring to Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians; indeed, all foreigners.

22. ‘Gippo’, a derogatory term used by racists, referring to Gypsies or Egyptians.

23. In a subsequent interview, Wallis maintained that George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells influenced him politically more than Marx (Wallis, Interview, IWM, op. cit.).

24. Wallis has never specified to whom he gave information, but circumstantial evidence suggests that these clandestine activities also involved dealings with Marcel Hitchman (a Czech who worked for the Special Operations Executive) and his wife.

25. The Royal Greek Army experienced two major mutinies, in February 1943 and early April 1944. Dave Wallis’ recollections refer to the latter incident.

26. With the assistance of the Curiel network, half-a-dozen of the organisers of the mutiny, including ‘Comrade Janatakis’, evaded arrest for a further six months. Interview, S.V. Bardell, Sound Records Department, IWM.

27. ‘Al’ appears to have been Wallis’s pseudonym for the RAF artificer, Harry Sherwen. See Kisch for further references.

28. This also appears to have been Wallis’ justification at the Maadi Conference for endorsing Stalinist orthodoxy by opposing support for national liberation movements.

Updated by ETOL: 18.10.2011