Amica at Arbutus Manor
Foreign Service – Royal Air Force
In 1941, Norman volunteered for the RAF but failed to be accepted for Air Crew on medical grounds, so he assigned to become an Aircraft Electrical Mechanic. After training in the UK, he was posted to various Maintenance Units (M.U.) servicing Spitfire fighters.
In early 1944, Norman was stationed in an M.U. in what was then Palestine, and came across a notice asking for volunteers to train as Catering Officers. Needing a change, he applied and was accepted into the program. Over the next four months Norman spent a week in every department, learning about food preparation for baked goods, soups, meat and vegetables. Part of the training was to know the rudiments of Royal Air Force Law.
After training, Norman was sent to the Middle East Central Command Centre in Heliopolis, Egypt to be examined by a group of Officers. He passed the exams but found he was expected to sign on as a permanent member of the RAF for seven years. Not prepared to do this, Norman was posted to the Heliopolis RAF base where he became Assistant to the Incumbent Catering Officer for the balance of his service career.
Three months later the Catering Officer was demobilized and Norman found himself in charge with more than three thousand servicemen to feed! Norman seized the opportunity and began to make the job more interesting for himself by introducing new menus, much to the initial chagrin of servicemen he was feeding.
Knowing the war was ending, he took a correspondence course on Industrial Accounting. Using his new found knowledge, Norman developed a stock control system and quickly discovered stock was disappearing rather rapidly. Setting up his own investigation team with a small group of senior British staff, Norman decided to hide out for three consecutive nights after the next shipment of supplies arrived.
Sure enough, on the second night at about 1:30 am the first sounds were heard – the occasional grunt and clicking of steel bits against camel teeth, followed by the quiet but urgent commands of the riders to control them.
Norman and his team saw emerging out of the night, a camel train consisting of 30 animals, each with double saddlebags and a rider. The night staff from Norman’s unit had formed a human chain, passing bagged and boxed food from the storage units to a 10-foot high fence. At the fence, two staff members had another on their shoulders so the packages could be passed from the ground to the camel drivers on the other side of the fence where the food was then loaded into their saddlebags.
Norman’s team decided not to accost those outside the gates as they were primarily concerned with the conspirators from their own staff. Norman’s team caught and held 21 staff members including the Second Chef. Many had worked for the British Forces for over 25 years and were eligible for pensions within five years. At that point the Military Police were brought in. Staff was blacklisted and could not work in a British Forces establishment again.
For Norman, it was then that things got more interesting. “As the Second Chef was taken away he looked at me through his scarred face and drooping moustache, warning me that I would not leave Egypt alive. I think it was only then the full impact of what I had done hit me and for the next three weeks I did not leave camp. Then, I ventured out only with others and with a knife down each knee-high sock. It was a false sense of security as I hadn’t the faintest idea how to use them! In those days corpses were found with their gold teeth and ring fingers removed, such was the value of life in Egypt in the nineteen forties. Fortunately I was due to be demobilized in a few weeks so my self-enforced stay within the confines of the camp was not too much of an imposition.”
During Norman’s wartime experience in the RAF he had never been subjected to direct fire, and felt safer than the civilians back in the UK who were facing nightly bombardments. Norman feels the true heroes were those in the airplanes, the front line army troops, the Navy and Merchant Marine, the medical corps and the Underground. They lived with the daily danger of losing life or limb.