Wednesday, 19 March 2008

#066 - 1960 - Tour of Tunisia

In March 1960 I received an invite from the BCF to go as mechanic to the “Tour of Tunisia” The team would be
  1. Alan Jacobs
  2. Bill Baty
  3. Norman Baty
  4. Norman Taylor
  5. Ray Leivers
  6. Mick Coupe

Manager would be Bob Maitland. I wrote to each rider and got particulars of their equipment, and by now my own tools and parts were always ready. I was apprehensive about Bob because when we were in Eire for the 1950 Dublin-Galway-Dublin International he was there on an ‘expenses paid trip’ as a star English International and he would have nothing to do with us. Anyway at the time he was a representative for (if I remember rightly) Fibrax and one or two firms. Bob rang me and arranged a lunch date at the Royal Hotel. The day came and I had the usual trouble getting away, we discussed the forthcoming tour but his main objective seemed to be to try and sell me his wares. I was not having any of this, but he still wangled for me to pay for the lunch.

The day dawned when we all met at Doughty Street at the BCF headquarters, now well accustomed to the routine, I bought some coat and lapel badges to be given in return for any favour done to us on the coming Tour. We weighed in at South Kensington Air Terminus and so on to Heathrow where we eventually set off on an old two-tier Bristol Freighter for Paris. Here we picked up the Dutch, French, East German and Belgian teams. We landed at Tunis late afternoon. What a transformation from Paris, the bus the officials put our team in had animals and chickens and bikes and luggage on the top - I do not know how it moved at all. We were taken quite a way from Tunis to stay at an ex-French Foreign Legion Camp, already there were the friendly Yugoslavian team who showed us the “ropes”.

In the adjacent camp were Algerian soldiers training for the fighting in Algeria against the French. For team cars the authorities provided us with small Fiat four door models and an Arab driver. Luckily Bob spoke French so we were able to converse with him. We rode down to the start at mid-day, where it eventually got underway ¾ hour late much to Bob’s annoyance. The stage was fairly flat with drags and Alan Jacobs got away with a small group, when we were about 10 mile from the finish in Sfax the heavens opened and it poured down with rain. In the finishing straight it must have been 6” deep, Alan Jacobs won the “sprint”. The rain was still tippling down and with no gutters or drains the road was flooded. We stayed on higher ground in an ex-French Foreign Legion Barracks, collecting our mattresses from a pile in the corner of the dusty Nissan type hut, blankets were provided but no sheets, so everyone slept on the floor wearing their track suits, even the race officials had the same basic accommodation. (Can you imagine our ‘blazer brigade’ doing this). Much to our misbelieve the food was excellent. I found a place to do the bikes, Alan Jacobs had complained of squeaky bottom bracket. On stripping this I found both Campag ball races had disintegrated. I washed it out and fitted loose balls with plenty of Filtrate high melting point grease (still using this tin to-day at home 2001).

Bob was doing a good job massaging the legs and doing the feeding bags and bottles, I had bought bottles of “Milton” to clean and sterilise our feeding bottles. We also bought with us water purifying tablets, personally I had no trouble but unfortunately Bill Baty and Alan Jacobs would to have to retire with a touch of dysentery.

The next stage was from Sfax-Sousse, I cannot remember any major happenings with our team apart from the fact that Bill and Alan were ill. Bill had all the bunch, irrespective of nationality saying a current catch-phrase in the UK - “Charley Brown is a Clown”. When Bill had to “pack” you could hear going round the peloton ‘Charley Brown Kaput’. The next stage was from Souse to Sfax, along the coast towards the desert at Gabes, Alan was suffering with his dysentery finishing well down, and he retired the next day. After his first day holding the yellow jersey we had high hopes of him. Alan was to turn pro later in his career and do quite well.

Norman Baty surprised us by his prowess in the hills, he was a terrible descender though, taking both feet out of the clips trailing one foot on the road, frightening to watch. We were in the lovely town of Kairouvan and this was a rest day. We were hoping that Alan and Bill would recover, but the Doctor gave them a “jab”, which made them worse. We turned tourist in the afternoon visiting the Mosque which we found very interesting. We also entered a Carpet shop, the proprietor was very efficient showing all his wares until he found out we were English, he almost threw us out of his shop. Wondering how we could have instilled such a reaction, we went back with someone who could interpret for us. After the shop keeper had calmed down he gave us a bit of history. In 1943 when the Germans were there the Luftwaffe and Wehrmact airmen and soldiers were very polite and paid for all goods and had them dispatched to Germany. Later in 1943 the English arrived and, he alleged, ransacked his shop stealing his carpets, hence his temper with us. We were the first English to visit since then.

We stayed in good accommodation in Kairoan and the cuisine was good. The facilities for mechanics were also first class. The following day saw us climbing the Kasserine Pass, this was where the Americans took a pounding from Rommel in 1943. We stayed the night at Kasserine, again in French Foreign Legion Nissan type huts.

When I was 14 years old I had borrowed a book from Long Eaton library by ex-legionnaire Waterhouse, an Englishman who had enlisted at Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria, in the book he describes the murals painted on the walls. I was lying there with the book coming to life. Actually the barracks were ex Foreign Legion as Tunisia obtained independence from France in 1956.

The race then went up north to Tabarka and on to the French Naval port at Biserta, we were not received to well here either, due to the fact that in 1940 the British fleet had sunk half the French Navy to prevent it falling into Germans hands, in the process the town was damaged. From Biserta to the finish at Tunis and we were delighted with the form of Norman Baty - he finished 2nd in the sprint. We were in Tunis 2 days and the day before we left we were invited to the British Embassy at Cap Bon. We were entertained very well and in a lull in the conversation the Ambassador asked if anyone cared to visit Alexander’s city at Cathage, if so he would arrange a car, amazing as it may seem only two of us took up the offer, an interpreter and myself. The trip was very interesting, Cap Bon was where the German Africa Corp under General Armin surrendered to General Montgomery in 1943.

We flew home the following day in the same Bristol Freighter via Paris to London. An amusing incident happened immediately on take off from Tunis - a cheer went up from all on board, no one had led it but it was a spontaneous response from us all, we were so pleased to get away.

No comments: