A snapshot of the past,
the lost bag of signalman Alexander (Alec) Ross,
Royal Signals, L.R.D.G. dispatch rider
In the month of August, 2007 my good friend and constant expeditions companion, Khaled Makram visited the Gilf Kebir with an Italian group. While leaving Wadi Sora towards the south on the plains, Maria Alessandra Orselli and Paolo Chiodi "noted something emerging from the sand. Its shape was too square to be a natural stone or bush...[They] stopped in front of a cloth bundle, tied with a light-coloured string fixed with metal clips. At the first touch the cloth went to pieces and revealed its contents". Unfortunately as the strong wind threatened to blow away the fragile remains, only one photograph was made of the find in situ:
(Photo courtesy Paolo Chiodi)
The bundle turned out to be the complete personal belongings of a british soldier, including clothes, letters, photographs and a number of other items (see below in detail). From the addressing of the letters it was evident that the soldier was one A. Ross of the Royal Signals, with some affiliation to the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The letters and photographs in the bag were much damaged by the infrequent rains and wind, but what remained legible indicated that it was all highly personal correspondence. What was rescuable from the finds (the tattered uniform and the cloth bag enclosing the other posessions were left at the finding site) were entrusted to Khaled, with the intention of tracing the owner or more likely the descendants, and return the items to the family.
The rescued finds, Cairo, August 2007
By coincidence I was in Egypt at the time the find was made, and on returning to Cairo Khaled called me excitedly with the news. In Khaled's office I had the opportunity to examine in detail and photograph the finds, hoping to be able to find clues to the owner or descendents. Looking through the material (that included his Soldiers' Service and Pay Book), the name was soon identified as Alexander Ross of Burnley, Lancashire. I set out to do a thorough search on the web, first by checking the Imperial War Graves Commission website, where no matching record was found, implying that Alexander Ross at least survived the War. Further searches met a dead end, however I had more luck when expanding the search to include Alec's brother Donald, who sent some photos as well as a Christmas card. I soon found an online BBC article of the wartime memories of a lady named Irene Porter, born Irene Ross, with references to his brothers Alec and Don serving in Egypt during the war, even mentioning that Alec served as a dispatch rider for the LRDG. It took little time to find among the letters sent to Alec several with the signature of Irene, nine years old at the time. Unfortunately the BBC turned out to be rather unhelpful to several email and phone enquiries, it took several months until Geoffrey Kolbe, companion of several expeditions managed to make contact with the editor responsible for the online article, and finally reach Irene Porter with the news. With commendable effort, Geoffrey organised the trip to the UK for Khaled to be able to deliver the contents to Irene in person. A few short clips can be seen on the BBC website:
Inside Alec Ross's bag (Video)
Delivery of Alec Ross's bag (Video)
One element of the find was a pack of negatives, in extremely fragile condition, the emulsion turning to dust as soon as touched. Securely packed, I have taken the negatives to Budapest, where with the help of restorers from the Hungarian National Motion-picture Archives, we could take digital scans of almost all of them, except a few that were too damaged by water (from the infrequent desert downpours). While it was a delicate job, it was completed in time for Klaled's trip, a CD with the scans was given to Irene together with the original negatives. I was hoping that some of the photos may have historical significance, but it appears the censors were vigilant, only photos of personal nature were found (see below).
Below is a complete documentation of the items in the find, followed by the scans from the negatives.
Please note and respect that contrary to other photos on this website, no photograph appearing on this page may be copied, re-used or directly linked for any purpose without the explicit written consent of the copyright holder, Irene Porter (Ross). Also note, that many of the photos and correspondence were private and of a very personal nature. I have used discretion to show only those items, which in my opinion Alec would have been happy to share with an interested public.
(Click on the images to see larger versions)
Hat, leather pencil case, pencil
A neatly folded street uniform hat, inside a leather pencil case with an aluminium mechanical pencil inside, still in working condition (no doubt used to make entries in the notebook, below). Inside the hat there was also a sewing kit (no photo).
Packs of bandages, ID tags, pair of photos in envelope
There were several packets of sterile bandages (only two that were preserved intact shown above), a small envelope with two photos of a girlfriend, and the soldier's ID tags, which interestingly were not made of metal, but of a very tough cardboard. The ID tags carried the number 852784 and the name ROSS A. (matching his Soldiers' book, see below)
Army issue wallet, containing Soldiers'Service and Pay Book, telegram and club entry card
An army issue wallet with inscription ARMY FORM A2026, containing Soldiers' Service and Pay Book, issued in Abbasia, Cairo on the 21st June, 1938, with the unit Royal Signals rubbed out but still legible. The wallet also contained a telegram, and an entry ticket to the Services Catholic Club dated 26th January, 1941, indicating that at the time A. Ross was attached to the Army Signal Office, Port Said.
Note book with signals log
The item with potentially the biggest historical significance, hence it is reproduced in full. The notebook contains a full log of the signals sent and received during the period 11th - 15th July, 1942. The log is mainly in Q code (a kind of shorthand used to this day in morse communication) recording standard transmissions and receipts, however there are some comprehendable notes, eg. on the 12th "Batteries rather low - truck stopped at M all day - unable to charge." The logbook was started on the 11th, and contains blank pages after the 15th, however as there are letters dated later (see below), the package could not have been lost at this time. The reference to the [signals] truck suggests that A. Ross was riding a truck with the LRDG at the time rather than a dispatch motorcycle. we know that following Almásy's late May sortie to deliver the two german spies to Assiut, the LRDG was active in the area (there were several false alarms of possible enemy activity).
Envelope with Airgraphs
An envelope filled with Airgraphs, mainly from family members, covering the period August 1941 to August 1942. The last date is 10th August, 1942. Several of the letters are from Irene Ross. All of them are addressed to: SignMn ROSS, A. 852784, No 3 Company, 6th L of C Signals, M.E.F. (Lines of Communication Signals, Middle East Forces). Interestingly, from June 1942 onwards this address is crossed out. Ross' assignment to the LRDG was unknown to the family back home in Britain at the time.
A cloth binder with documents, letters and photographs
A cloth binder wrapping several documents, letters and photographs. One document is a dog's quarantene permit, the dog itself is most likely the one that can bee seen on some of the photos recovered from the negatives (see below). There are several photos showing A. Ross in the company of unidentified other persons. The first photo is of the Port Said ANZAC memorial (which was destroyed in 1956 during the Suez crisis, a replica now stands on Mt. Clarence in Australia, incorporating the original stones of the pedestal). Note, that on two of the photos Alec is wearing the very hat found in the pack.
One letter in the pack was from brother Don, and contained three photographs from the northern coast where Donald was stationed with the artillery.
A white cotton bag with letters and postcards
Most of the letters and postcards were from family members. There were two christmas cards, one from the family in the UK, the other from brother Don.
The letters and postcards from the UK were all addressed to the L of C Signals, M.E.F., with the exception of those from brother Don, who was obviously "in" on the LRDG assignment. The old address was crossed out to L.R.D.G. from June 1942 onwards. The last dated letter inthe pack was 24th July, 1942.
A pack of negatives
The pack of negatives was in an envelope, however one corner of the envelope was eroded away, and the negatives were coated with a generous amount of sand that became cemented to the emulsion when the pack became wet on numerous occasions during the 65 years it lay undisturbed. The rain also caused the individual negatives to stick to each other, and the emulsion in places flaked off to the slightest touch. It was a difficult, lengthy and delicate process until the individual negatives could be separated, and cleaned to the best extent before scanning. During scanning, the copies were numbered in the sequence they were in the pack, however it soon became evident that different themes were mixed, the negatives in the envelope were not in a chronological sequence. Thus the photos are grouped into identifiable themes:
With LRDG (?) in Siwa (?)
The only photographs that may possibly be linked to Alec's time with the LRDG are a set of three taken at the same spot. In the background a rather high desert scarp can be seen, making it likely (but by no means certain) that the shots were taken at Siwa, which was LRDG headquarters before Rommel's 1942 summer offensive. The truck on the photos is a long wheelbase Morris Commercial C4 (15 cwt, 4x2), which to my knowledge has not been used by the LRDG. This suggests that there was a Signals unit in Siwa (probably seen on the photos), and Alec was transferred from this unit to the LRDG. The motorcycle on which Alec is sitting on the 2nd photo (and which also appears on the 1st) is an early pattern Norton 16H from 1940, denoted by the pannier toolboxes and the large headlight(many thanks to Mick Holmes and Ted Van Doorn for the independent identification, and Mick also for providing the photo of his recently restored example).On the road (Desert bordering the mediterranean coast ?)
These photos are the only ones in the pack aside the ones above which are of places rather than people. The first one, taken from a height, is a small town or village, with a clearly recognisable scarp in the background. It could be either on the outskirts of Siwa, or more likely somewhere along the mediterranean coast (with the Libyan plateau in the background), possibly even in Libya before Rommel's offensive. On the enlarged part a group of vehicles can be seen, with no cabs they appear to be Morris Commercial CS8-s. The second photo shows a group of vehicles resting along a desert trail, but the negative was unfortunately too damaged to tell anything more. The third photo is one of the many medieval cisterns dotting the northern coast, many of which are still in use today.Railway station and camp beside the Suez canal
A series of photos taken at a railway station beside the Suez Canal, either near Port Said or Ismailia (or in-between). The funnels and air vents of a passing (or moored?) ship are clearly visible behind the railway cars. On two photos tent and pegs are pertially visible, suggesting that the camp scenes below are taken at the same locality, facing the opposite way.
Note railway cars in the background in the middle photo. The environment is clearly one out of town.
A couple of shots of fellow soldiers were apparently taken at the same locality.Barracks
The most numerous photos have been taken at an installation with permanent buildings, possibly the barracks at Port Said housing the Royal Signals. There are a few shots with some background detail, but most are of fellow soldiers.Trucks departing
A series of photos showing trucks being loaded, farewell and some fellow soldiers. The location is possibly the same as the barracks above, but the backgrounds do not match. Note the SIGNALS inscription on the truck on the second photo, and sand channels fixed to the sides.Unidentified location
A couple of photos are taken at an installation which does not seem to match either the Suez Canal station camp, not the barracks above (note the hilly desert in the background on the third photo). The dog may be the same as noted on the quarantene certificate found among the letters (see above).On leave
Two photos, one in a town street the other in a bar.
Several photos taken by a swimming pool, with high city buildings in the background. Most probably somewhere in Cairo.
UPDATE: I have made contact with Alec's younger brother Donald Ross through his daughter. Don was very moved to see the photos and letters, especially the three photos he mailed to Alec which were not seen since. Don confirmed, that the above photos (by the swimming pool) were taken in Ezbekieh Gardens, in central Cairo. The location of the camp beside a railway station and the Suez Canal is indeed Ismailia.