A Strange and Unforgettable War-Time Experience
By Christopher Xenopoulos Janus
World famous Shepheards Hotel in Cairo
Christopher Xenopoulos Janus
During the World War II I was stationed in Cairo, Egypt in our State Department UNRRA office. Along with the Greek Government-in- exile were certain British military and our OSS unit. We all were waiting for Nazi forces to be driven out of Greece and in my case to put in operation our $400 million Greek war relief program.
While in Cairo, this in 1943, I stayed at the world famous Shepheards Hotel. The word “famous” is not adequate enough o describe all the unique wonders of the hotel. Its large front terraces where everyone met during the day for tea or cocktails faced the busiest street in Cairo and it was said if you stayed on the terrace long enough you were bound to meet someone you knew.
In the back of the hotel there was a beautiful flower garden with award winning roses and exotic plants. Next to the garden Shepheards had its own little zoo. Of course, there was a camel or two, several young Arab horses and quite special two young pandas from China. But the zoo director’s favorite animals were his gazelles. He had at least twelve of them and he claimed that the gazelle was the most elegant and graceful on earth and these gazelles were quite tame and a delight to children who petted and played with them.
Many stories have been written about Shepheards’ historic checking room. The checking room was run by a Greek. I remember his name as Costas, and his young Egyptian wife. In addition to managing the checking room, Costas and his wife had a little silver business. They specialized in making thin silver cigarette boxes and they became quite popular, a sort of status symbol. At one time I owned about 12 of these beautiful boxes, though I didn’t smoke! Which I passed on to some of my associates in the State Department.
The most famous thing about the checking room, however, was its reputation for safe keeping most anything and everything no matter how long and if Costas you were not given a check. During World War 1 young Major Winston Churchill checked a small package (in it was a copy of Omar Khayyam’s RUBAIYAT and a string of worry beads)
He was called away suddenly and forgot to retrieve the package. During World War 11 Churchill came to Cairo to meet with President Roosevelt and during a visit to Shepheards he remembered the package. He went to the checking room. Costas, a bit aged was still there. Costas didn’t even ask for a description of the package. He said, “Please Sir, sit down and by the way have you seen our new silver boxes? Its our best work.” In a few minutes, Costas returned with a dusty brown package. I believe this is what you’re wanting.” Churchill was quite astonished and gave Costas a five pound British note. Costas framed the 5 pound note and had it on display up to 1957 when Nazis took over in Egypt, ousted the British and Egyptian mobs dragged the body of the British ambassador through the street in front of Shepheards. Later on mobs burned Shepheards down.
Shepheards was very much a symbol of British Imperialism. But to the average traveler who himself, all politics aside, the hotel was known for its unparallel 24 personal room service. Actually you didn’t have to call for room service. Outside your door or nearby was what the British called your “Nubian slave.” He wasn’t a slave but usually it was a very large African and he always gave you confidence in the security of the hotel.
My “Nubian slave” was called Ulysses and I never did find out how he got the name. But I suppose that the owner of Shepheards knew I was of Greek descent and with the State Department and he thought it appropriate to assign Ulysses to me. When I left Cairo for Greece in 1943, I gave Ulysses a silver cigarette box and ten packages of Camel cigarettes which he greatly appreciated.
The unique bar of Shepheards seemed to be a meeting place for everyone have anything to do with the war. Most of the members of the Greek Government-in-exile, members of the press, adventurers, elegant and beautiful women all would meet there. And it was a very special place for pilots and crew members of the British air force. And this is where my most unforgettable war story really begins.
I was sitting alone at a table near the bar and just about to order an S&B and I have to tell you about S&B before my story begins. S&B stands for “suffering bastards.” It is a brandy based drink actually invented at Shepheards and is most potent. Two or three S&Bs and you would forget all about the war and really didn’t care. As I was sitting there a captain in the Royal British Air Force came up to me and said “Bless my soul, aren’t you Chris Janus from Oxford? We were at Wadham College and both studying Philosophy.”
Of course I remember him and I also knew him as one of the most decorated captains in the British force especially for his 17 missions over Berlin. We embraced and I asked him to sit down. He brought over his co-pilot, navigator and rear-gunner “tail end Charlie.” I’m not mentioning names for reasons that will become clear later in the story.
We all had a few S&Bs and had a wonderful time. I asked the captain what his next mission was and he said “Old Buddy, that’s too secret but since it’s already in the works and will happen tomorrow I’ll tell you the general idea.”
He told me their was a Nazi munitions ship disguised as a cargo ship in the area and “we’re going to bomb it to Hell.” His co-pilot added: “Since it is disguised as a cargo ship there won’t be any anti-aircraft guns on board. It will be a piece of cake.”
After another round of drinks, the captain turned to me and said: “I say old boy, how would you like a little adventure and come aboard? Mind you this would be against all regulations but we can handle it.”
I don’t recall now whether it was the S&B talking or me but the reply was immediate and enthusiastic. “If you really mean it, count me in. When do we start?”
We left the following morning at around ten o’clock bound for Alexandria where the bomber, a new four engine Lancaster plane was being readied for the mission. The Lancaster could carry big bombs up to ten tons. It was fast, beautiful and deadly deadly in its power of destruction. But also deadly for the crew for it had no amour plate, was big and easy target for anti-aircraft, especially since most of its bombing missions were at a low altitude
The captain told me where the Nazi ammunitions ship was docked. It was just outside the dock of the island of Samos, where, of course, I have been many times especially to taste the great Samos red wines.
The captain told me we were going to bomb the ammunitions ship around siesta time where hopefully most Greeks would be taking a nap and out of harms way. I thought this was clear British humane thinking. Why bomb an ammunitions ship when at the same time you might be killing hundreds of friendly and innocent Greeks.
We left Alexandria on schedule and about 30 minutes later we saw the Nazi ammunitions ship directly below us. There were no anti-aircraft guns and there were no people on the ship or on the nearby shore.
The captain ordered “Lets go for it” and our first bomb was a direct hit. Then we flew down lower and the second bomb tore a big hole on the port side. The boat was taking water and I thought our mission was over and successful.
The captain seemed to be enjoying it so much he decided to fly just a few hundred yards above the ship for a last hit. It was a direct hit in the aft of the ship and the whole ship exploded. The explosion was so great it knocked out our right engine and killed the co-pilot. I was sitting next to the navigator and the next thing I saw was his blown off head in my lap. I was bloodied but miraculously not hit. The rear of our plane was also hit and the bombardier caught it in his shoulder but not life-threatening.
Here I must digress a bit and say that though I was miraculously unhurt something serious happened to me I’ve discussed this with a psychiatrist and it goes like this: This is something called a “shock-of-death” : seeing a blown-off head in my lap and being a part of a great tragedy, a damaged plane, fire and fumes, our tail gunner calling for help when I couldn’t do anything apparently put me in a state of shock. And shock in a person does various things. First of all, it enlivens and heightens your senses. For several days after the explosion I found myself hearing noises I’d never heard before. Id touch an iron gate or a silver spoon, I felt part of the gate or spoon. Odors and fragrances would come to me with such strength to make me dizzy and gasping, and finally perhaps most important a state of shock can give a person a sense of extra-sensory ability or as the psychiatrist warned me an illusion of extra-sensory ability. I’m not sure how much of all this I believe. I do have to say, however, that I played poker several days after this tragedy. I swear I could tell what card the dealer was dealing next.
In this extra sensory condition a person thinks he can predict the future and I did have some experience with this.
After the explosion with one engine out we were able to return to Alexandria airport. There were two ambulances waiting for us as well as a fire truck and other emergency equipment. We were taken to the Alexandria hospital where incidentally King Farouk was being treated for a minor ailment. The rear gunner was treated for his wounds and advised to stay in the hospital for a couple of days. The body of the co-pilot and the navigator were taken to the morgue to wait for final instructions from the British Consulate General. The captain and I were given an examination and then released. The captain suggested we drive back to Cairo the same night which we did returning about 1:30.
Now comes another surprising and telling part of the story. As I entered the elevator to go to my room, George Skouras, chief of our SOS operations in the Middle East, greeted me with hugs and kisses on both cheeks and then said I looked like death and could use a drink. He invited me to go with him to a party he was giving at the hotel. I tried to beg off but he insisted I go.
As we entered the party already in full swing with about 30 people, I felt I was being drawn to a table at the end of the room. George left to get us drinks and I went to a table where a WAC in full uniform was sitting alone. I looked at her and I don’t know I said “You know, I can tell what you’ve been thinking.” She said, “Well, that’s a line I haven’t heard. But do sit down. Okay, now tell me what I’ve been thinking and no propositions.”
I said: “You’ve been thinking about your husband who is waiting for you in Madrid.” “Well I’ll be. How did you know? George probable told you.” “No,” I just felt it.” Just then George arrived with drinks and said: “I see you’ve already met.” The name of the WAC was Kay Robinson and she was George’s date for the party. I felt something else which I did not discuss. It was a premonition of death.
I didn’t know for whom but it was clear and real.
Being very tired, I begged to be excused and the last thing George said to me : “I’m going to Tel Aviv for a couple of days. Look after Kay for me.” And I said I would be delighted.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that opportunity. On the noon news the next day I heard : A U.S. military plane was shot down over Sicily. Including Private First Class Kay Robinson.
About the Author
Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Christopher Xenopoulos Janus started his writing career as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. Later he became a special writer for The New York Times Sunday News Magazine section where the late Lester Markel was his editor. During World War II, Janus joined the Department of State serving in Washington, Cairo and Athens on Greek War Relief and Rehabilitation programs. This experience had a great influence on his writing.
After World War II, the author was involved in various entrepreneurial experiences. At one time he owned Adolph Hitler's Mercedes Benz and toured it through the United States. He was an Investment Banker, but always took the time to be involved in the world around him.
Since his retirement from business, the author has devoted his time to writing, publishing and traveling. He founded and published the widely acclaimed Greek Heritage, The American Quarterly of Greek Culture, and with William Brashler wrote Search for Peking Man (Macmillan 1975). Janus' novel Miss Fourth of July, Goodbye has been filmed by Disney Productions. Around the World in 90 Years reflects much of the author's own warm and caring philosophy of life embodying unconditional loyalties and boundless enthusiasm. They feature a strong sense of self-reliance and the courage and wisdom to be interested in everything. Yet, as his mentor, George Santayana once cautioned the author: "Don't be awed by anything."
Most recently, the prestigious American Hellenic Institute Foundation of Washington, D.C. awarded its Hellenic Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award to Christopher Xenopoulos Janus.
HCS readers interested in reading more of Mr. Janus' articles are invited to browse through the section of our archives under the category created for his articles, "Janus Articles and Publications," at http://www.helleniccomserve.com/contents.html#Janus Articles and Publications.
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