An Erk’s Progress: 7. Blighty… And Romance

So it was that in 1942 I travelled by rail to Bombay where together with eight other R.A.F. types I boarded the “Athlone Castle” which had been converted from a luxury liner to a troopship. We were allocated a hammock each, suspended above tables in the mess room. A bit tricky to get into at first, but quite comfortable really.

Amongst the passengers were quite a large contingent of army personnel and also a number of naval ratings accompanied by their own chief petty officer. We were amused when they fell in for “divisions” at which parade they received their daily ration of “grog.”

Hardly were we clear of Bombay than the ships radar picked up a German submarine, which shadowed us for sometime before being dealt with by an aircraft of Coastal Command. A few days later our radar broke down and the ship’s Captain asked over the tannoy if anyone had any knowledge of the intricacies of radar. By good fortune one of our little band – a Canadian from Toronto – was a radio mechanic in the R.C.A.F. and was able to repair the fault. As a reward he got an extra can of beer for each of us.

Looking over the stern we could see that the ship was changing direction fairly frequently and we learned that we were zig-zagging so as to present a more difficult target should we run into any enemy submarines. Heading roughly in a south-westerly direction we eventually awoke one morning to find ourselves in Cape Town. Here we were pleased to learn that we should be tied up for a few days and could go ashore as long as we came back on board at night. We spent an enjoyable time seeing the sights, Table Mountain and so on. We did of course visit one or two bars and were well warned about talking to civilians as these places were the favourite haunts of Nazi sympathisers. The time came for us to leave and we were joined by a large number of young R.A.F. officers who had just finished their training as pilots and navigators. They thought they were very important people, a view that was soon to be shattered.

It so happened that another more senior officer with the rank of squadron leader also came aboard this time. He was unusual in that he wore a bush hat and he let it be known that he was on his way home from a stint in Burma. His name was Scott and he took charge of all the R.A.F. personnel on the ship. He, for some reason, was not enamoured by the young officers and from now on referred to us nine other ranks as his lads.

Prior to leaving Cape Town the good people of that city were kind enough to supply us with crates of “Outspan” oranges for consumption on our voyage home. These most acceptable gifts were stored down in the ships hold and could be brought up as and when required. After the first day or so the rookie officers started ordering our chaps to fetch crates up for them. On hearing this Sqd. Ldr. Scott said, “Not bloody likely!” and gave instructions that this role was to be reversed and thus it ended up with us being served by the officers until we reached New York.

Each day a boat drill was held when we all had to fall in at our appointed place complete with life jackets. Sqd. Ldr. Scott took the parade and would send me round inspecting those present. “Make sure and tell them to get their hair cut if required, Corporal,” he whispered. Needless to say I took a certain amount of satisfaction in so doing even though I felt just a tinge of pity for them.

All lights on board were extinguished when night fell and smoking on deck at night was forbidden. We were still zig-zagging and would try to work out our position by using our watches and pointing the hour hand towards the sun and halving the angle between that and the half hour and this would be south. Whether or not this system was right or wrong I never knew.

One of the ships deck-hands told us that we would all be disembarking at New York as the ship was having to be laid up for a week so that fumigation could be carried out. Whatever the reason, we did leave the ship. All of our group now went by train from Grand Central Station to a small town called New Rochelle, which looked a bit like some of the townships associated with the U.S. film industry. From here we went by ferry a short journey to an island on which was the American base “Fort Slocum”, from which large numbers of U.S. troops were marshalled in readiness for transfer to the European theatre of operations. Security here was fairly strict and telephone calls were not permitted. We were allocated a room in a barrack block and then followed the soldiers to the dining hall. The food was really great and one could eat as much as one wanted. I was amazed at the liberal amount of milk allowed – quart bottles all along the tables. Officers and men messed together and everyone had to muck in on K.P. (kitchen parade) duties. We did our stint and although there were large automatic machines to do the washing up it was still hard and hot work just loading, unloading and stacking the tins, plates and other items of kitchen ware. We were here about three weeks and only did it once so was no great hardship!

Quite close by our billet was the PX (Post Exchange) where all life’s necessaries could be obtained, and at one end was a bar, shaped in a sort of oval with the barmen serving in the middle. The beer was like a rather weak type of lager and was served in tankards with loads of froth on top. It was like a high class N.A.A.F.I!

During our stay at the Fort it so happened that the W.A.C. (Women’s Army Corps) was due to have their passing-out parade and we were invited to be present. At the same time a F.F.I. (free from infection) was taking place in a small hall adjacent to the medical centre. The W.A.C’s mums, dads, sisters and other relations were all there in their best Sunday clothes. The band was playing “A pretty girl is like a melody” when suddenly a voice came over the tannoy, “Drop your pants”. Laughs all round!

I forgot to mention, but we did get a special 50 dollars per week allowance. Bacon and eggs cost 50 cents!

S/Ldr. Scott decided that we should parade each morning at 10am for role call and right away gave instructions about being in by 23.59 hours and no later. As he dismissed the parade he whispered to we nine, “That doesn’t apply to you chaps. Just see that you’re present for role call!” I don’t think any of us ever availed ourselves of this privilege, except once when by accident we missed the last train and had to spend the night on some benches on Grand Central Station. As we stretched ourselves out and tried to find a comfortable position, a policeman tapped me on the shoulder with his truncheon and said, “What time d’ya want waking, bud?”

Our days in New York were passed very pleasantly for we discovered that there were a number of clubs such as “The Maple Leaf Club” and “The Union Jack Club” where one could obtain, free gratis and for nothing, tickets to any cinema or theatre in town. Lots of them were similar to the ENSA shows at home, but a few were really outstanding – “Stars on Ice” for example with the legendary Sonya Henne.

Eventually all too soon Sqd. Ldr Scott announced that our “good life” was at an end and we would board a troopship in two days time. Our new transport was as I recall the “L’Isle de France” and rather larger than the Athlone Castle. It was absolutely packed with American soldiers, so much so indeed, that men were having to sleep on the winding staircase which led from one deck to the next. The food was disgusting and the ablutions and toilet facilities unbelievably bad. The voyage itself was a nightmare – people being sick all over the place as they couldn’t find their sea legs. Not surprising really as the sea was rough with forty foot waves! I was glad the trip only lasted about a week and it was with much relief that we slipped into Liverpool and thence to West Kirby.

Here the usual medicals and form filling took place and after a couple of days we all took our farewells of one another with some sadness and proceeded on our individual ways.

My posting was to No. 21 (M.U.) Fauld, near Tutbury in Staffordshire. Right from the start I took a dislike to the camp. The entrance gate was manned by Service Police composed of young, jumped up N.C.O’s who hadn’t been in the R.A.F. five minutes. I felt annoyed at having to book in and out since no such restrictions had obtained over the previous five years.

Next morning I reported to the signals office where I found an L.A.C. teleprinter operator in charge. “You’d better see the boss,” he said, and directed me to the main office block. The boss turned out to be a W.A.A.F. Signals Officer who was not only a female, but an American female who I soon discovered knew nothing about wireless communications, but seemed to spend most of her time drinking and saying, “God damn it!”

In addition to the L.A.C. there were two AC2 wireless operators, Stringers and Roberts, and in the adjoining room two civilian telephonists. The switchboard was manned 24 hours a day, but the wireless equipment consisted of the good old T1083/R1082 combination. Radio watch was opened only twice a day for test purposes only. I don’t ever remember a message being passed.

The accommodation consisted of four or five Nissen huts and one for use as a dining room. The camp had originally been an alabaster mine with several miles of underground light railways along which thousands of bombs were stored. Even above ground the track ran through fields to a village halt about a mile away. This length of track too was lined on both sides with 1000 lb block busters. I remember thinking that a well-placed Jerry bomb would send us all to kingdom come!

Once or twice in the company of two other chaps I went into Burton-on-Trent, but for the most part a stroll into nearby Tutbury was all we did. The village main street was fairly long and there were reputed to be more public houses than private ones. Suffice it to say we chose to use one in particular. Here we got to know quite a few of the villagers who were great ones for their dominoes and darts.

A hundred yards or so from the signals cabin was the farmhouse and the farmer, a bachelor, would bring us a pint each morning. He was called George and liked nothing better than to come over for a chat. He fancied himself as a bit of a ladies man and was well known to Ted and Jack, my two telephone operators, who pulled his leg unmercifully.

Ted was married and lived locally. Jack was unmarried and in digs with two older ladies in Tutbury. He was about 42 years old, but always referred to himself as a young fellow.

Arthur, the L.A.C teleprinter operator forgot to keep a log of his messages one day and when “Ma’am” found out I was ordered to put him on a “Goddamned charge”. Well I wheeled him in to see the C.O. and he got three days confined to barracks and had to report to the guard room three times a day in full-pack. He wasn’t too pleased, but it was soon over and forgotten.

My time at Fauld was of short duration and in 1943 I was posted together with two of my operators to 25(MU) at Hartlebury in Worcestershire. It was dark when we arrived and after drawing our blankets from a disgruntled storekeeper we moved into a Nissen hut at the bottom corner of the hutted camp. Next morning after parade we were directed to a large hanger, which had been converted into workshops where there were mostly civilian technicians engaged in sheet metal work and various other duties. Our task was to carry out modifications to stacks of transmitters and receivers, which were destined for use in aircraft as and when required. Half a dozen N.C.O’s and men from other units had also been drafted here to be employed on similar radio repair work and we soon built ourselves up into a separate little group. In particular I became friendly with a corporal about my own age called Ralph Wolfenden. He had been in the R.A.F. a few years and had served overseas on the Gold Coast so we had similar experiences to talk about. From the very outset we were disgusted by the couldn’t care less attitude of the civilians who, for the most part, idled their time away making little private things for their own use at home. Even the government A.I.D. Inspectors took about six times as long as was necessary to examine our work after completion. B.B.C. radio reports, relayed over the tannoy, to the effect that “D-Day” landings had started evoked no sense of urgency amongst them. It was therefore decided that we R.A.F. bods would speed up our production in an attempt, by example, to spur on our civilian colleagues to greater efforts. For the rest of our time on that job we worked like the very devil and the hangar floor was covered from one end to the other of the A.I.D. section with equipment awaiting inspection. There must have been complaints made because we were split up into smaller groups and sent out some to Wolverley and some to other sites of which there were about twelve.

One evening I was having a drink with my lads at one of the N.A.A.F.I. dances and I saw this W.A.A.F. to whom I had taken a fancy right from the first time I saw her in the dining-hall. Being a bit of a coward where the ladies were concerned I sent young Stringer over to ask her to have a dance with his corporal – not that I could dance anyway. However she was kind enough to come over and join us at our table and we all had a drink and a chat. I found out her name was Thelma Brockbank and that she came from Abbey Wood in south-east London. I showed her my photos of India and she told us about her mum and dad and three sisters. Next day I bumped into her outside the orderly room or reading room – I can’t remember which – and plucked up enough courage to ask her to accompany me to the camp cinema. To my surprise and delight she said she would and so it was from then on we went out regularly and had some really wonderful times together.

Unfortunately, with the war being on, many of the little luxuries of life were either rationed or unavailable. So I couldn’t treat her to a box of chocolates, and so she had to be content with a bar of chocolate from the N.A.A.F.I. Most of our treats out consisted of tea and wads at the Y.M.C.A. in Kidderminster or perhaps tea in a little cafe in Stourport or Bewdley by the river. We used to go to the cinema in Kidderminster and I remember on one occasion we had to sit on the gangway steps as the seats were all taken.

Several other of her W.A.A.F. friends worked together with Thelma in the stores on No.3 site and they were all nice girls. Some of the girls were billeted in Nissen huts on the main camp, but Thelma and a few more were moved to a large house called “Winterfold” some four miles from the camp. I used to walk there and back every evening until eventually Thelma felt sorry for me and let me have her bike. From then on I was able to cycle up to Winterfold every evening unless I was either on guard duty or duty N.C.O, which wasn’t too often. Sharing Thelma’s bike wasn’t the ideal arrangement so in the event I bought a Rudge Whitworth machine of my own. It was a well made if somewhat heavy cycle and on more than one occasion I had to push both it and Thelma’s up the hills which were too steep to pedal up. Still, I was very much in love and it was more of a pleasure than a chore.

We visited the Y.M.C.A. quite often in Kidderminster and although, on reflection, it was rather a dark, austere sort of place, it appeared at the time to be not too bad.

Everything in the garden was lovely but there was always the prospect of an Iceland posting in the offing. When it came, as it did, it was a dreadful shock to find myself down to go to Iceland. I couldn’t believe it especially as I had only recently come back from five years in India and there were lots of wireless operators who had never set foot out of this country.

I felt really hard done by and went to see the C.O. who commiserated over my ill fortune but said there was nothing he could do to have it altered. I dreaded having to tell Thelma but in the event she took it very well and we decided to make the most of such time as we still had together. Shortly after this I decided to pop the question and sold my bike to one of the civilians. With the proceeds, plus what money I had, I bought a nice engagement ring in Kidderminster. That evening, 5th October 1943, I proposed under a lamp post in Hartlebury and slipped the ring on the third finger of her left hand.

It was decided that I should go with Thelma to Abbey Wood to meet her parents. We got a train to London all right, but Charing Cross station was closed for the night and there would be no more trains until next morning. What to do? Thelma said that Lyons Corner House was close by and we’d get a nice meal there and it would be lovely listening to the band. Whilst this was probably true during the day things at night were quite different. The place was crawling with prostitutes and pimps and American soldiers. Thelma had to visit the toilet and seemed quite shaken on her return. Some woman had asked her if she’d “made much tonight, dearie?” We sat there all night and caught the first train to Abbey Wood in the morning.

Thelma’s house was only a short walk from the station. Her dad opened the door to us and we were soon sitting down to breakfast. Here I met mum and sisters Sheila and Mavis, the latter 14 years old and Sheila about 22, I guess. A lovely weekend, then back to camp.


Introduction | Chapter 6 | Chapter 8


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