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COLUMN: PG’s Tips - ‘In the war, everyone fought the desert’

Diss' Pete Gillings with the ambulance from 'Ice Cold in Alex' (picture taken in 1970s).
Diss' Pete Gillings with the ambulance from 'Ice Cold in Alex' (picture taken in 1970s).

One of my favourite war films is Ice Cold in Alex - mainly because it broke the mould in war films. It was made in 1958, so only about 15 years from when it was set.

I’m sure even if you are one of the few people that have never seen it, you might remember the advert for Calsberg in the 1980s, with the condensation running down the side of the glass and John Mills about to drink it in one.

I was at a dinner party a few years back and someone was talking about the film and I said yep, I had one of them ambulances.

The one in the film was converted to four-wheel drive so they could do the desert scenes. There was more than one so they could do other shots - “Katey” got its name because it was an Austin K2 ambulance (so K2 became Katey) and was filmed by Associated British Pictures in Elstree.

I started working with my dad in the 1960s and one of my first jobs was a film studio at Elstree called Danziger Productions - dad bought a load of block and tackles used for scene shifting. They were high up in old aeroplane hangars and too high for me.

Dad found a Spiderman who worked for MGM and I stayed and lived with him and his family while we did the job - he did say if I wanted, he would get me a job at MGM, handing up lenses to cameramen.

But it meant leaving home and I was only 14. Mum weren’t too happy - “cuda bin James Bond.”

So the film studios were having an auction and we ended up with an ambulance and it stood at the yard at Mission Road for years.

Getting back to the film, a large part of it featured the Qatarra Depression. On the way back from the studios one day, I said: “You were in the desert, Dad, whereabouts was the Depression in the film?”

He said: “We all kept a long way from it. Tanks didn’t even like the sand, let alone a load of porridge with a crust on top.”

He told me that he was only there for the first battle of Alamein, which was just north of the Depression, then shipped to Burma.

He fought the Italians first, then the Germans, but they all fought the same enemy, the desert.

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