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The story really starts in England, when I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals at Catterick, on Wednesday the 5th of September 1945. For this occasion Margaret and my mother were invited, staying at a hotel at Darlington and travelling to Catterick Camp by bus. I managed to get a “sleeping out” pass for the Monday night so Margaret and I had a double room and Mother had a single room that night. On the following night they shared the double room and I gathered that Margaret didn't sleep too well. After the “passing-out” parade on the Wednesday morning we came home by train, seeing Mother on to a Farnworth train from Manchester. As we were both very tired, Margaret and I nearly missed our stop at Frodsham.
I had been granted a one week “posting-leave”, my first leave since the beginning of January that year, and I also drew my first pay as an officer which included the first £5 note that I had ever come across (the large-sized white paper one). During this leave we took a three day holiday at Llandudno, finding a guest-house on the west side of the upper end of Mostyn Street, and spent an enjoyable few days. An amusing incident happened at Llandudno; we went on the pier one day and the toll collector let Margaret through the side gate at the children's rate, while I had to go through the turnstile at full price. Of course, I wasn't wearing ankle socks at the time!
My posting was to Ossett (near Dewsbury), an uninspiring mill town where a commandeered mill was the centre for mustering overseas drafts of Royal Signals personnel. Here we were issued with our camp kit which included a safari bed, roll and blankets, folding chair, canvas bath and wash basin, a canvas bucket and other encumbrances. We were also issued with tropical clothing, bush-shirts, shorts, slacks and underwear, and I took charge of a 0.38” calibre Webley revolver and 12 rounds of ammunition. I was also introduced to some of the ways of life in an Officers Mess, where belts and canes were always left in an anteroom before meals and if any officer didn't wish for conversation over breakfast he was supposed to sit down wearing his hat! Only one member of my O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit) course appeared at Ossett, a rather quiet Scot named J.D.MacEwan, the other officers coming from a variety of Signals Units. There was, of course, a small permanent Staff.
During the time I was there my duties were mostly concerned with holding daily pay parades. A group of us went to the local bank each morning and drew large quantities of notes which we then doled out on signature to an apparently endless stream of Signalmen and N.C.O.s. This was rather monotonous work to say the least. After some days of this my accounts showed a profit of £5 (!) whereas one of my brother officers had a deficit of £7 so I was able to help him out.
On the 5th of October we were given haversack rations for the day and entrained for Southampton. Our draft, coded RMGZK, comprised about six hundred men with eight draft-conducting officers. The troop train, travelling without a stop, arrived at the Southampton dockside in the late afternoon. Some of the men threw out letters home as we passed through stations in the hope that someone would put them in the post. By this time there was no need for the secrecy about troop movements that there had been during wartime.
By the early evening we had all embarked on the “Winchester Castle”, a 20,000 ton cruise liner of the Union Castle Line, our group of officers in a large cabin with bunks for about sixteen so we had plenty of room. Our heavy kit, marked “Not wanted on the voyage” went into the hold and we only had our hand luggage. The men were several decks lower on the troop decks. These were fitted with “standees”, rows of four foldable bunks supported on chains from vertical steel pillars. Everyone here was very crowded and there was not much room for the men's kit. It was also very hot and there were few portholes. After sorting out the accommodation it was a case of finding our way around a big ship. This took some time as there were many decks connected by companionways, as well as endless similar-looking passages to the cabins.
There were about 4000 passengers on board so the ship seemed rather crowded and you couldn't get away from people. I managed to find a small bookcase full of novels in one of the smoking-rooms and made some use of this during the voyage. Some groups of officers and nursing-sisters set to playing cards in the saloons almost as soon as they were settled on board. I couldn't understand this attitude as there was so much to see on the dockside and in the harbour, and I found plenty to interest me on the upper decks.
In recollecting the events of the voyage itself, I now draw on some extracts from my letters home written during the voyage.
Saturday, October 6th 1945
This afternoon at two o'clock we all mustered on deck at our boat stations wearing our life-jackets, and when we were there, the ship was towed out by a couple of tugs and cast off in the stream. We have to carry our life-jackets wherever we go, as it is a standing order on troopships. We steamed for an hour or so with the land on either side and then after describing two big circles, anchored for the night between the Isle of Wight and Hampshire. We can see the land away on two sides of us but it is quite a way off. As soon as we got moving, the men had to stow away their rifles in the Armoury and draw blankets. With so many troops on board there was a lot of chaos but we eventually sorted things out and all was well. MacEwan, Kaye and I have been picked for Messing Officers and go to every meal the men have to see that they are looked after O.K. The men have three sittings for each meal and three meals a day, so we attend a sitting at each meal.
I found this a most onerous duty, the meal times coming round with monotonous regularity and I always had to have an eye on the time. It wasn't easy to ask if there were any complaints at tables seating hundreds of men. Not only that, but I was accompanied by a formidable, stoutly-built steward of the ship's staff who looked down his nose at junior officers and left you in no doubt about it. Fortunately, complaints were few and usually frivolous and I managed to cope with them. For example, one man complained that he had found a bone in his fish!
Our own meals, served in the First Class Saloon are excellent; breakfast is cereal or porridge, egg and bacon or sausage, scones, bread, marmalade and coffee. For lunch today we have soup, fish, mutton or beef with vegetables, sweet (with cream today) and coffee. For dinner at seven we have soup, fish, another meat and vegetable dish followed by sweet, biscuits and coffee. Fresh water is restricted for washing, and is only turned on at certain hours during the day.
Salt water is available most of the time though, so I've got some salt-water soap. The ship is completely “dry” and it's an offence to bring alcohol aboard but there is a canteen for tea and biscuits for the men. This evening we had a film show, “Champagne Charlie”, in the lounge, but I didn't think much of it at all. Card playing seems to be the most universal occupation on board. The men play in corners on the decks and the first-class passengers in the lounge and smokeroom. The Nursing Sisters all have two “pips” and wear S.D. (Service Dress) or B.D. (Battle Dress), and are all volunteers for 12 month's service in India. Bridge and similar games seem to be the most popular but as I don't play I am not bothered. We have a deck to ourselves but the men are allowed over the rest of the ship's decks. They have to go below at 10.30 but we are allowed on deck until 11.00.
Sunday, October 7th
We have been at anchor here so far. The boat drill took place again this morning and I think it will be a regular routine. Owing to some lack of “Admin” the clocks weren't altered last night and this caused some confusion at breakfast. The ship's clocks, I am told, won't be changed until we move east. It just shows how isolated a ship's company is, doesn't it? It's just like a town on its own - about 4000 men and 100 officers and 100 or so nurses and the ship's crew.
We started off just after three this afternoon and sailed eastward past Cowes and then past Spithead. The weather was hazy with a cold wind and after we had turned south and then west to the Channel we saw our last glimpse of England. This was the Isle of Wight, but was very hazy and practically featureless. Since then we have been bashing along down the Channel with a very steady sea running. I had a saltwater bath tonight!
Monday, October 8th
Today our course has been slightly west of south and we are most likely in the Bay of Biscay. The seas have grown rougher and the motion has been quite marked most of the day. It's quite a job to walk straight down the corridors as the ship rolls. The sea is a lovely deep indigo colour and as the waves break, you can see the bluish light as the sun shines through the crests. The water is beautifully clear. Most of the day I've been up on the boat-deck in the sun. I've managed to wash some socks, collars and handkerchiefs tonight in fresh water, but I've still got a shirt, etc., dirty. Tonight a kind of impromptu concert was held on the aft well-deck and as it was lit up I stayed up there with David Kaye until 9 o'clock when it finished. Clouds of spray were being swept along the ship and we got a share of it. Tonight, as I'm in my bunk, the ship is rolling quite a bit and there are some clouds coming up so I hope it's not too bad!
Tuesday, October 9th
I was up at 7 this morning and after a wash and shave went to the men's messroom to see that they were O.K., then up on deck until breakfast. The sea was quite calm and the sun shone over the water making it very pleasant. The Q.A.I.M.N.S. (Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service), or some of them at least, were doing some P.T. under the instruction of an Indian Army Sgt.Major. We sat on the deck in the sun all morning after our boat muster drill. The sea was a deep Reckitt's blue colour and the wind just nice. It's much warmer today.
At noon we were roughly 60 miles west of Oporto, although we haven't seen any land since the Isle of Wight. I saw two swallows yesterday which settled on the ship for a time. Since dinner the swell has been more pronounced and there is a certain amount of pitching and rolling. It's fine lying on the deck in the sun however, although I wish I had some sunglasses. This afternoon some rocks came into sight on the port bow. They seemed to rise sheer from the sea and the biggest one had a little white lighthouse on it. Shortly after, we sighted a large school of porpoise about half a mile away. As soon as they saw us they came as fast as they could - jumping several feet into the air from the tops of waves and their bodies gleaming in the sun. They chased us for quite a while but we outdistanced them.
When we were about 50 miles N.W. of Lisbon we saw the Portuguese coast, high mountains inland and low land near the sea. It looked very nice. After dinner we saw the film “Song of Russia” with lots of good music in it. I enjoyed it. Then Dave and I had our usual stroll round the decks afterwards. We seem to get on very well together; he's from Edinburgh and took his M.A. there. On the port side of the ship we could see a light from a lighthouse flashing every five seconds somewhere on the Portuguese coast. To starboard we could see the lights of a ship in the distance. The sunset tonight was really magnificent - the waves reflected the red of the sunset and were shot with blue and green from the sky - just like mother of pearl. With the white foam it made a beautiful picture.
Wednesday, October 10th
We had a pleasant run today covering about 420 miles from noon to noon. At noon we could see mountains away to starboard although visibility was poor. Then we sighted Spain and could see the lighthouse and port of Teriffe (Tarifa). The hills behind looked fine with cloud shadows chasing over the land. On the African side, we passed a barren rocky shore with steep mountains, one very high one veiled in cloud looked magnificent, and we could see the crags and ridges of rock quite clearly about five miles away. Gibraltar was only faintly visible through the haze but we could make out its shape. After passing through the Straits we lost sight of land and the sea became much rougher, waves about six feet from trough to crest and twenty feet long were coming up. We were heading into these and the ship was as steady as a rock. We have seen quite a few ships - this morning a small Spanish cargo-boat was making heavy weather of it as we passed - she was rolling very rapidly and waves were sweeping over the low decks. The chaps gave her a cheer each time she came out of the water. In the Med. this afternoon, a schooner with only one sail set was heading for Gib. in the heavy seas. There was another impromptu concert for the men tonight on the deck and as it was quite warm it was very pleasant on deck. The moon was up tonight and the Plough, although it's a bit lower in the sky. I always look for the Polestar....... (Here I omit a sentimental passage). It's 9.15 now and as I feel tired I'm going to bed. I'm getting quite brown and as I'm doing no work and eating well, I expect I'm putting on weight. I have made a few pals, especially with Dave Kaye and Jim Wood who is with another draft on board.
Thursday, October llth
All day we have been sailing along in a deep blue sea and have been in sight of the African coast most of the time. We passed the Bay of Algiers but couldn't see the town as we were well offshore. In the afternoon we passed a small group of islands to port called the Dog Isles. There seem to be a good many ships about; we have four or six in sight most of the day today. The boat deck is covered with people lying in the sun. I was up there most of the day reading a book by John Buchan, “The Three Hostages”. As the troop decks are so crowded and badly ventilated, the men from the lowest sections are allowed to sleep on deck tonight.
Friday, October 12th
I was up at 7 this morning and looking over the beautiful calm blue sea we could see some very picturesque islands off the African coast. We were shortly passing Bizerta and could plainly see the gleaming white houses and a few old red-rusty ships ashore - relics of the American landings. We passed Cape Bon just before lunch - this was the place of Rommel's last stand and the nearest part of the coast to Italy. Ahead we can see the large rocky island of Pantelleria and are due to pass Malta at about 10 o'clock tonight. For dinner today we had four courses - a fried fresh herring, rice and curry, corned beef and salad, macaroni pudding and coffee. At the moment, I'm in the First Class smoke-room to give my eyes a rest from the sun. I was finishing my novel on deck this morning and it's made my eyes ache.
Pantelleria is coming up now (2.45) on the port side, so I'm going to have a look. The island seemed very barren with steep, coloured, cliffs rising from the sea. On the mountainside were hundreds of white patches which looked like tents but were most likely farmhouses and villas. I spent the night writing and my usual stroll on deck. We couldn't see Malta as it was too dark, but could see a lighthouse with a flashing light away to starboard.
Monday, October 15th
This morning at 7 we entered the breakwater at Port Said and I washed and shaved in a hurry with frequent peeps out of the porthole. I saw several Arab boats with lateen sails going out of the harbour. Then I went on deck just as we passed into the harbour. I smelt the native town! Whew! The buildings on the side of the harbour were grand - white with domes inlaid and brightly enamelled. A British cruiser and several submarines were tied up alongside and looked very neat. Then we passed a burnt-out liner and several bits of ships which were most likely relics of the war, and tied up about sixty feet from the shore near the entrance to the Canal. In the streets ashore we could see the Arabs walking about in long “white” nightshirts and wearing the red fez, and others with cotton skull caps.
Very soon we had a dozen or so bum-boats alongside with Arabs trying to sell leatherwork, etc, handbags, wallets, and cheap jewellery. They threw lines up to the ship with a basket attached, but carefully attached another line so they could hang on as well! We had all been told not to give away any British currency but it made no difference and soon the baskets were going up and down with wallets (2/6 usually), handbags (£2 or £3), etc. Another chap appeared swimming in the water round the ship and asking for money. When people threw silver he would dive and catch it, putting it in his mouth and giving a salute. I am sure he swallowed it all and recovered it later because he could still speak after several hours diving! When copper came down he ignored it unless he didn't see it until it was in the water. Then, when he came up again, he came out with a shocking dose of language and said he wanted no “Scotch” money.
All the while, launches kept arriving at the side of the ship with port officials, police, etc., and agents for various firms (including Cook's Tours!). The police launch actually had the cheek to leave an armed policeman with a rifle at the top of the gangway to protect us!
On reaching Port Said the ship was moored to buoys at the refuelling berths and there was a flurry of activity. A long floating stage was connected between ship and shore to enable craft to come alongside, landing-craft took off troops for Palestine and the Canal Zone, while the Governor of Sinai, who was also on board, departed in a more ostentatious manner. Over the ship's Tannoy system came instructions not to buy from the traders as there was a risk that the ship's monetary system would be dislocated if too much small change was lost. This advice was not altogether taken. Some of the less well-equipped Arabs relied on a wet cloth wrapped round their wallets and purses and thrown accurately up to the purchaser, who had, needless to say, first thrown down his money. The disrespectful term “Wog”, used at this period for Arabs or Egyptians, was common army slang and thought to be short for “Wily Oriental Gentleman”. I never heard it applied to women. These were known as “bints” from the Arabic word for daughters.
A pontoon bridge was pulled out from the shore and an oil pipe-line connected to refuel us. The troops who were to disembark went off on landing craft which came alongside. Several Wogs came along the pontoon to try and sell us stuff - one brought a basket of some fruit like peanuts which the Arab policeman threw into the water, and the man himself nearly! The coin diver, however, salvaged it for him and picked handfuls of the fruit out of the oily, filthy water, eating some himself during the process! (This fruit was probably fresh dates). Another chap came along with a filthy cloth bundle which he carefully opened to show a bunch of green bananas.
When I went down the companionway to our cabin, a Wog in a fez and European clothes stopped me (how he got on board I do not know) and asked if I wanted to buy a gold and diamond ring for £2.10.0. He showed it to me and when I expressed my doubt of the diamonds he scratched a piece of mirror to try and prove it. Of course hundreds of things will scratch glass, from emery to quartz which this was. It was a massive brass ring with three huge bits of quartz, stamped on the inside - “reel gold”. I told him I'd seen better in Woolworths and that he'd better try some of the women passengers, but he said “Women no good, I got two wives”. He followed me all the way to the cabin and then we all had a good look at his leather wallets etc. The handbags were strong enough for baby elephants but were not very attractive, being made of camel leather which wears very badly. All the wallets, etc., were embossed with pseudo-Egyptian designs and highly coloured. One of the chaps bought one of his 7/6 wallets for 3/6 and then we pushed him out. (not before the cabin mirror had suffered from more attempts to sell the diamond ring!). I was thinking of trying to sell him something for a lark but couldn't think of anything suitable. We locked up everything we could and shut the portholes to be on the safe side.
Most of the day we were on deck watching the fun. The Franconia (Cunard-White Star) pulled in just ahead of us with lots of Indian troops on board going home. Two native police in a rowing boat went round making an entirely formal effort to clear away the hordes of small boats alongside, but were bribed right and left to let them stay.
One boat was towed about twenty yards by them until the Wogs paid a bribe of two handbags (one for each policeman) and were allowed to carry on with their work. A sailing dhow (felucca) came alongside laden with thin cane crates of cabbage, melons and marrows. They tied up to us and had the ship's hoses turned on them immediately. The two Wogs got soaked to the skin and their boat half-full of water. Then they were found to have been sent to put the vegetables on board! They weren't very upset and took off their clothes except for their underpants and hung them in the sun while they unloaded the vegetables and our crane lifted them aboard.
We got a penny, wrapped it in silver paper and threw it to the diver. Chaps on the boat shouted as they thought someone had thrown half a crown and the Arab broke his neck to dive for it. He gave us a salute and then found he'd been tricked, and we had a nice collection of obscene language! On the other side, a tender came alongside to refill our freshwater tanks and the crew of four Wogs were some of the most filthy people I'd ever seen. They wore on the average three garments between four of them and some amazing headgear - a shocking old topi with a hole in the top, a battered black trilby and a white cotton skull cap. The lads threw them pennies and cigarettes to scramble for and they fought each other over the decks for them. They started to play, trying to throw buckets of water over each other. Eventually they were all soaked and must have been weighed down with the copper they'd collected. It goes dark very quickly here after the sunset and about 15 minutes after the sun went down over the palms, it was black. We set off about 8 o'clock and went down the Canal by searchlight.
As dusk fell, a searchlight was mounted in the bow of the ship for the Canal passage, and we cast off. From the moorings, by some strange optical illusion, the Canal seemed to run uphill, a long wide straight waterway between low banks through flat desert country. Soon we were passing between sandy banks with groups of palms and a few houses on the west bank only. I found later that the attractive domed buildings on the Port Said waterfront were the Suez Canal Company's offices.
Early next morning we approached Suez and hove to in the Gulf while the pilot was dropped. The town seemed a nondescript collection of white buildings, much less attractive than the splendid rocky precipices and cliffs of the African shore only a few miles away. The usual swarm of boats came alongside but were soon attracted from us to a homeward-bound troopship waiting for a pilot. We were soon under way and spent the next few days sailing down the west coast of Sinai under a blazing sun. We were able to pick out Mt.Sinai from a number of neighbouring peaks in the clear sky.
Tuesday October 16th
When I got up this morning we were just coming out of the Canal past the port of Suez. Again we could smell the town over the water. We passed the “Empress of Australia”, homeward-bound with troops from Singapore, etc. Then down the Gulf of Suez with barren mountains and desert on either side. The mountains of the Sinai Peninsular were very clear and we could distinguish, Mt.Sinai clearly. The sun was terrific and I saw several shoals of flying fish. It was very hot all day.
Wednesday, October 17th
Very hot all day with hardly a breath of wind. I've been sweating buckets! Even on deck in the shade it was too hot to be comfortable. No land in sight all day although we passed Jiddah to port over the horizon.
Thursday, October 18th
Not quite as hot as yesterday owing to a breeze. The shade temperature at noon was 91° Fahrenheit. Our run was 432 miles from noon Wednesday to noon Thursday. All afternoon I was busy below with pay. It was sweltering in the men's quarters and I was glad to get the job finished.
By this time, the portholes had been fitted with metal wind-scoops looking rather like conical coal-scuttles and designed to direct a current of air into the cabins. They did have some effect but it was very hot everywhere, and we were warned of a fire risk from cigarette ends thrown over the side and drawn into cabins by the draught.
After dinner we talked to the cabin steward for a while and he told us a bit about the ship when it supported the landings in North Africa and Salerno. Then we went on deck and sat on a life raft until 11 o'clock. There was a delicious mild breeze and it was very comfortable (what I would call a sultry English summer night). Just as we went down to bed we saw a large island with lighthouses on our starboard. During the day we passed another smaller one called the Jebel something or other, but I don't expect it is marked on the map as it's so small. At night now I only wear pyjama trousers and have one thin cotton sheet over me. Even then it is very hot. I'll have to do without the pyjamas altogether shortly as some have done already!
Friday, October 19th
Beautiful warm breeze this morning and as soon as I had done a few small jobs I came up here on deck to sit in the shade. I have a little more pay to issue yet. There are lots of flying fish to see now and an occasional porpoise. The sea has gone a dark green colour and there are occasional clouds which are now something to look for.
Saturday, October 20th
Very uneventful day. We got our chocolate rations, and yielding to a craving for something sweet, I bought a tin of condensed milk and a tin of blackberries. At night, Tom, MacEwan and I lay out on deck on blankets until 11 o'clock - it was hot!
After opening the tin of blackberries with my army knife, I ate a few spoonfuls. I don't think they could have been very good as I soon felt queasy and was violently sick. The tin went out of the porthole without delay, and I was able to follow its path into the depths through the very clear ocean water!
Sunday, October 21st
Overslept an hour this morning (a consequence of changing time zones as the ship's clock was put forward an hour overnight at times, to allow for our easterly course) and just made breakfast. At nine o'clock I went to the service in the Lounge, and the rest of the day I'm converting £ into rupees for the men. This takes a long time as we have to record names and amounts of sterling currency handed in, the amount per head being limited to a few pounds.
The rate of exchange was one shilling and sixpence to the rupee, so the maximum amount converted was only Rs.40 per person. We had to collect all the sterling before reaching Bombay so that it could be exchanged for Indian currency brought aboard for issue to the troops before landing. Inevitably, we found that despite our care, we had £6 not accounted for by signature when the money was added up. The only solution was to invent two imaginary signalmen, a certain Driver Soap,J. and a Signalman Ramsbottom,A. to enable the money to be converted legally.
The Army bureaucrats seemed to have no sense of humour. They had issued us with several large crates of “training stores” together with a complicated programme of training courses for all branches of Signals personnel from Wireless Operators to Despatch Riders and Drivers. Needless to say, we made no attempt to carry out any training on the voyage. It wouldn't have gone down at all well! Only one crate of stores was opened and that was to extract a set of tools to help repair some of the ship's radio system. At the end of the voyage, the senior draft-conducting officer was supposed to fill in a questionnaire and give details of all training carried out. He just filled in - “None” - and added the remarks - “Ship too crowded” - and left it at that.
Tuesday, October 23rd
When I went on deck early at seven I could see a brownish haze across the eastern horizon, and a few gulls appeared to scavenge the ship's wake for scraps. This was the first trace of the Indian sub-continent, heralded by a pall of dust over the land; a very striking sight after days of ocean travel with clear skies. The passage had taken seventeen days from leaving Southampton. After breakfast, the land crept over the horizon, low brown hills with vegetation on their lower slopes and later, buildings could be seen. Picking up a pilot off Colaba, we rounded the Point and anchored in Bombay harbour about half a mile offshore, opposite the Yacht Club and the Gateway of India.
The sea-front looked quite interesting, the Taj Mahal Hotel, a large imposing building, standing to the left of the Gateway of India, a grandiose British monument built to commemorate the visit of George V in 1911. Across the wide bay to the north-east, we could see two islands looking like pin-cushions with their clusters of palm trees. The more easterly and hilly one, about six miles away, was Elephanta Island, renowned for its rock-cut Siva cave temple dating to the 7th or 8th century A.D.
Two boys came along in primitive looking dug-out canoes and salvaged empty tins and boxes thrown over the side. They also dived for the few coins that were thrown to them. We saw a large snake swim past the ship and there were a number of scavenging “kite-hawks” attracted by food scraps thrown overboard.
A succession of port and military officials came out to us in launches, and a supply of Indian currency arrived under an armed guard so we were soon busy re-paying our men. The amount involved was Rs.10,000 (£750), and Lt. Anderson and I held a grand pay parade for our draft, calling the men forward by name to collect their rupees. Needless to say, the money changed for our two imaginary signalmen was claimed when everyone else had been paid!
Thursday October 25th
We have lain at anchor for two days and were kept busy with administrative work in connection with the disembarkation of our draft. Affairs were complicated by an outbreak of pilfering on the troop decks, so it was necessary to hold a general kit-check, no small matter in such crowded quarters. This operation took several hours in very hot and cramped conditions, and being preoccupied with this work, we failed to notice that the ship was on the move, until just as we finished, I saw through a porthole that we were passing close to buildings and palm trees.
We were passing Ballard Pier and I hurried on deck to see the ship towed into the Alexandra Dock, a lifting-bridge being raised to let us pass. Troops on the dockside threw bananas and oranges on board but none came my way. On mooring, a baggage party was sent ashore and after spending the night on guard, came back with alarming accounts of enormous cockroaches infesting the dockside warehouses. We were interested to see a group of labourers working ashore, a few men in dhotis were digging with mattocks in a leisurely way and a group of coolie women in drab coloured saris carrying away rubble in shallow wicker baskets on their heads.
Friday October 26th
Today was spent preparing for disembarkation, and with our draft, we went ashore at 1730 hours carrying our kit, to board a troop train in the adjoining railway sidings which was to take us to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The carriages seemed very rough compared with those in England, and as there were so many novel sights we stood or sat in the doorways so as not to miss anything. I spent my first rupee, buying two magazines from a pedlar. One of them was the “Illustrated Weekly of India”, a magazine resembling the English “Picture Post”. The men of our draft travelled in the usual Indian 3rd class carriages with bare wooden forms for seating and barred windows, while we were in 1st class compartments with leather seats.
Being nervous about mosquitoes, we were dressed in khaki-drill slacks and bush-shirts with the sleeves rolled down. There was an army regulation at that time which laid down that anyone contracting malaria would be charged with “self-inflicted wounds”, a court-martial offence. This was a measure designed to keep troops fit on active service and prevent malingering. It also laid down that after dusk slacks must replace shorts, sleeves must be rolled down. Mosquito nets must be used at night but no regular preventive medication was needed except in specified areas.
The voyage was over and I could now turn my back on the sea and look forward with interest to what lay ahead on the sub-continent of India.
The first impression I had of India was the squalor and poverty of the people along the railway tracks, some living in rough shacks, shelters and tents made from all kinds of rubbish; one shelter consisted of cardboard sheets fastened round the base of a small electricity pylon. Along the track, hundreds of beggars clamoured for money and when we stopped, swarms of beggars, fruit-sellers and children besieged the train. It was impossible to resist giving them money but this made matters worse and attracted larger swarms. The second impression was the smell! Humanity in the mass with no “mod cons”; in fact the land alongside the tracks was an enormous open air latrine.
It soon became dark but we stopped several times, once at Kurla on the mainland just over the causeway from Bombay Island, and again at Thana before arriving at Kalyan where the train pulled up in James' Siding. We were taken from the train in army trucks to the Officers Quarters while the camp permanent-staff took charge of the men who were taken to the Transit Camp. Before having a meal in the Officers Mess, we were shown to our quarters which consisted of “basha” rooms, bare concrete floors and low whitewashed brick walls with matting sides up to the tiled roofs. The furnishings were basic, a plain wooden chest of drawers and a wash-stand, together with a “charpoy” bed. This was nothing more than four wooden legs supporting a rectangular wooden frame, across which thin coarse rope had been loosely wrapped. Its severity was slightly decreased by a canvas palliasse filled with straw.
The Indian bearer who showed me my room also showed me how to fit a mosquito net on a light wooden framework over the charpoy. After our meal, we stood outside the messroom talking and watching the crowds of insects attracted to an outside wall-light. Several large beetles and moths settled on our clothing and the night was noisy with the hum and buzz of multitudes of crickets and other insects. Quite fascinating!
After a rather busy day with much to occupy me, I retired for the first time on a charpoy under a mosquito net and slept very well on my first night in India. Next morning I was awakened by a bearer dressed in bush-shirt and shorts who brought me a pint mug of very sweet tea. This, sometimes accompanied by toast or biscuits, and known as “chhota haziri” or “little breakfast” was the start to the day for the whole of the time I spent in India.
Later, after a good breakfast in the Mess, a party of us decided to go to Bombay as we had a free day without duties. We took a taxi to Kalyan station and travelled by electric train to Victoria Terminus, Bombay. This large station has an imposing Victorian Gothic facade. On the station platform at Kalyan I bought a newspaper from a boy and only later discovered that the crossword was partly done, so it must have been second-hand! (The newspaper was probably one from the previous day). The journey was interesting as we saw the country by daylight for the first time. As Europeans and obvious newcomers to Bombay we were the focus of attention for beggars, shoe-shine boys, street-traders and others. It was pitiful to see half-starved naked children, some deformed or crippled, lying on mats on the pavements to arouse sympathy and attract money, while more active beggars pestered us on every side. One man offered to clean out my ears, and flourishing a fearful array of metal hooks, small spoons and other implements, produced a testimonial to say he was “painless”! We soon found that shop prices were high and our needs of clothing and other necessities cost us hundreds of rupees.
At that time, serving British officers were given the privilege of being Honorary Members of the Cricket Club of India so we all went to the Brabourne Stadium, the Club Headquarters and had lunch. We had a very good curry with many small side dishes of unfamiliar extras for a reasonable price. There was also a small swimming pool and a pleasant terrace overlooking the cricket ground. After further exploration of the shops, three of us had tea at the Taj Mahal hotel before making our way back to the station. On reaching Kalyan station we hired a tonga, a small two-wheeled vehicle drawn by a small horse to take us back to camp. These vehicles are only meant to carry two passengers so it was rather overloaded; as we passed through the Kalyan bazaar the tonga caught the end of a fruit stall and upset it but the driver didn't stop.
I was on duty as Orderly Officer the next day, Sunday, so that except for a walk round the camp, I was restricted in my movements while some of the others went off to Bombay again. During the evening a “flap” developed, the camp permanent-staff rushing around to organise our movement orders for the next day, arrange ration issues and so on. We were on the move after breakfast and boarded a troop train at James' Siding, Kalyan, with our draft en route for Mhow and the Signals Training Unit. We were issued with boxes of American K-rations, each individual pack containing tinned, dehydrated and compact food for one man for one meal, not forgetting toilet paper. A good many packets of biscuits were given away to beggar children as they were not as appetising as fresh bananas and oranges which we could get cheaply at the stations.
First-class Indian railway compartments were fitted with electric fans and had two long leathercloth-covered seats along the sides under the windows, two more seats above them could be let down at night to provide bunks for four people. There was a small toilet compartment containing a shower and wash basin, also European-style and Indian-style lavatories. The latter had two raised foot-stands at the sides of a “hole in the floor”. The compartment windows were fitted with glass panels, thick wire-mesh screens and wooden louvered shutters, all of which could be raised or lowered and locked from the inside. On a convenient corner of the compartment was fitted a bottle-opener. The Third-class compartments were more Spartan being filled with bare wooden benches, the windows lacking glass and usually fitted with bars. Troop trains were sprayed with a smelly insecticide before each journey, but even so, our compartment harboured some “gi-normous” cockroaches which came out at night-time.
All along the line near villages, groups of children clamoured for money or gifts and even coolies working on the railway joined in. The stations were overrun with beggars and hawkers and we had to develop a resistance to their pestering. Sellers of fruit, usually bananas and oranges - green-skinned but delicious, sweetmeats - usually in glass cases to keep off the flies, and the ubiquitous cha-wallah selling tea from a brass urn, each had their own cry as they competed for business. The fruit with peelable skins was regarded as being safe to eat and the tea was also considered reasonably safe as it had been made with boiling water, although it was advisable to get it in one's own mug! Swarms of children, from small naked toddlers upwards, clamoured for gifts, patting their stomachs to indicate they were hungry and saying “no momma no poppa” to play on our sympathy. A troop train got special attention, especially if the troops were new to the country, and most of us soon gave away all our small change causing us problems later.
The train stopped at Igatpuri at about 1420 hours so that we could have lunch; the usual procedure was for the train-guard to telegraph ahead so that a meal could be prepared as the train did not stop at the station for longer than an hour. A proper lunch was only organised for officers; other ranks had haversack rations on the train. At other meal times we relied on K-rations. At many stations there were no platforms and one climbed down from the train to a few buildings which served as booking office, dining-room and waiting-room. Larger stations had several classes of refreshment rooms, both European and Indian style, some of these equipped with a punkah, a carpet-like piece of fabric hanging over the table and worked by a cord passing through a hole in the wall and over a pulley to a coolie sitting on the verandah. His job was to keep the punkah in gentle to and fro motion and provide a cooling breeze for the sahibs sitting round the table. The coolie tended to doze off, the punkah stopped and the sahibs would bellow “Punkah Wallah!” to wake him up.
At larger stations, there were separate food stalls and drinking water supplies at opposite ends of the stations for Hindus and Muslims, water being supplied by a man squatting on the ground beside a large container and supplying people on demand. He would offer a brass beaker of water and his customer, also squatting on the ground, would drink by pouring the water into his mouth without the beaker touching his lips, an interesting process to watch. We were amused to see the conveniences indicated by pictographs of a man and a woman, a necessity in an illiterate society; little did I think that this method was to become the fashion in Britain in the future! The stations were generally crowded with families and their possessions waiting for trains, and at night were crowded with sleepers wrapped up in white sheets, an eerie sight.
Leaving Igatpuri, we passed through Deolali Cantonment, the well-known transit camp, and reached Manmad where we stopped for dinner. After travelling on overnight, we reached Khandwa after breakfast (K-rations), and here we changed trains from the G.I.P.R.(Great Indian Peninsula Railway) to the B.B. & C.I.R. (Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway). The G.I.P.R. from Bombay to Khandwa runs through the hills and valleys of the Western Ghats and the Satpura Range at a steady gradient but when we changed to the B.B & C.I.R. two locomotives were needed to get up the steeper gradients of the Vindhya Range. The scenery was terrific as the line took us along the sides of precipices and over deep ravines on slender bridges, the crossing of the Narbada River being particularly impressive. Over this river another steep climb took us to the top of the Vindhya Range, where just before reaching Kalakhund near the upper plateau, we had a splendid view of a big waterfall across the valley. Then we reached Mhow at an altitude of about 2000 feet, where our first view was of the large cemetery by the station. It was about 1600 hours; trucks were waiting and we were taken with our kit to the Signal Training Centre (British), allotted quarters and were able to have baths and freshen up.
In the evening after dinner, some of us walked down to the town and spent the evening in the Dreamland Cinema, where a glamorous film of the East was being shown! It was quite hot at Mhow and everywhere seemed very dry and parched. I made my first acquaintance with the “tree-rat”, a small squirrel, and various lizards which shared my room, also the mosquito! In fact I got my first bite from one despite all my precautions. The next night, Wednesday, I had a walk down to the bazaar which was attractively lit by hundreds of small oil lamps. This was on account of the Hindu festival of Diwali, a real “Feast of the Lamps”, in honour of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity among other things, and all the houses and shops had small oil lamps burning around the doors and in the windows. The thresholds were decorated with intricate designs in powdered chalk, made using perforated tin rollers filled with powdered chalk and easily renewed when necessary.
Attracted by a noisy brass-band playing Indian music, I watched a colourful procession centred around a man dressed in brilliant clothing and laden with showy jewellery. He rode a white horse and at the time I assumed he was acting in some religious pageant but later realised he was a bridegroom going to his wedding. We were visited in our quarters by an Indian insurance salesman who persuaded me to take out a Prudential Life Insurance Policy for a series of moderate payments. The salesman was a very pleasant and well-educated man who showed me how to write my name in Urdu and Hindi; he also took me to a local doctor of medicine for a check before completing the insurance form. While there I suffered my first mosquito bite - the creature lost its life! The next day I felt very ill and spent the day in bed with frequent visits to the lavatory. I felt worse next day so I reported sick to the Medical Officer. He examined my eyes and mouth and gave me a small tumbler of castor oil to drink which seemed to do the trick and I soon felt better! The upset was attributed to “change of diet”.
We had no duties at Mhow other than regular trips to the office to check on the notice board for daily orders and on Saturday, November 3rd, my posting to 5th Indian Air Formation Signals appeared and I left Mhow station at 2230 hours by train for Bangalore. Travelling first-class I retraced my journey to Khandwa which I reached in the early hours of the morning and had to change trains on to the Bombay line. I soon found that this was not a good time to travel as all the first-class compartments were securely locked by their sleeping inmates. After trying to get on several trains without success, I was obliged to travel hard 3rd class with a crowd of Sepoys and Sikhs with their families. It was very crowded but there was another British officer in the compartment with the same problem and he gave me some useful tips on Indian rail travel. He was rather snooty though, as he said he had spent much time in Burma with the Chindits and tended to look down on the Indian Army not to mention raw young officers. My rail warrant was inscribed “Mhow to Bangalore - K.M.D.G.” and my movement order instructed me to change trains at Khandwa, Manmad, Dhond and Guntakal, but after my experiences of changing trains at night at Khandwa I decided to take a chance and carry on to Bombay in the hope of getting a through train.
I arrived at Victoria Terminus, Bombay, early on Sunday evening and had to pay some excess fare for being off my specified route. I was not able to get a reservation but with a little impudence managed to get on the platform without a ticket and with a coolie carrying my kit, grabbed a first-class berth on the Madras Mail, sharing the compartment with two Indian business-men. No one questioned me and I was quite relieved when the train pulled out without anyone claiming the berth I had taken over. I slept well and woke up in time for breakfast at Gulbarga. I was now on my specified route and could relax. It was very hot and dusty on the Deccan, and apart from villages and a few rivers, the land seemed a semi-arid desert for mile after mile. We travelled with the windows wide-open on the shady side of the train and only the louvered shutters up on the sunny side so as to get a good flow of air (and dust!). Arriving at Guntakal at dusk, I had dinner and then changed trains for Bangalore. The G.I.P.R had taken us on to the M.S.M.R (Madras and South Mahratta Railway) between Gulbarga and Guntakal although we were still on the same train, but the line from Guntakal to Bangalore was narrow gauge and single track. I got a good berth and after a good night's sleep on this train I reached Bangalore at about 0700 hours on Tuesday, November 6th, and was taken to the 5th Indian Air Formation Signals headquarters in a truck, had breakfast and met the C.O. Lt.Col.Withers.
After meeting the Colonel and arranging my affairs I took a long walk down time South Parade, continually pestered by rickshaw-wallahs on the way, who couldn't understand why an officer wanted to walk. Bangalore had good wide streets and was a very pleasant town with shops laid out in European style as well as large native bazaars. I was accommodated at the R.A.F. Camp where I settled in to wait for my posting. Next day I had a trip into the bazaar with the Second-in-Command of No.2 Company which was stationed at Bangalore. Our main objective was the fruit market which was at that time, officially out-of-bounds to British troops for some reason. Here, we bought fresh apples, pineapples, bananas and oranges, all of which were carried round for us in a basket by a young coolie girl who was pleased with two annas (about 1p) for this service. At night, I went with Captain Burgess, the Adjutant, into town in a rickshaw and spent most of the evening in a large Chinese restaurant where I made my first attempt to use chopsticks. We were entertained with a programme of Indian music and dancing during our meal.
Captain Burgess was awaiting repatriation and release from the Army and planned to go to university and take a degree. In preparation for this he was practising his skills in English by writing a long essay once a week, his topics being based on “The Times” broadsheets, a series of short well-written articles on a wide range of subjects. He gave me a number of these broadsheets that he had finished with, in case I wanted to do the same. While at Bangalore I was given some Air Formation Signals cloth badges to sew on the sleeves of my bush shirts to show who I belonged to.
I had been given a posting to H.Q. No.3 Company at Madras during the day, so after returning from the Chinese restaurant I left Bangalore at about 23.30 hours the same night on the Madras train. There was no trouble getting a First Class berth and I slept well, only waking up as the train stopped at Arkonam in the early dawn. I thought it looked a wild and dismal place and little thought that I would be posted back there before many days had passed! As the train approached Madras the country became more heavily cultivated, with flooded rice fields, lush vegetation and palm trees. There were many watercourses and tanks or pools of standing water. This luxuriance was due to the rains, the chhota monsoon (lesser monsoon), which brings moisture laden north-easterly winds from the Bay of Bengal at this season. It rained very heavily at times and then the hot sun shone making it uncomfortably steamy. I had breakfast on a balcony at Madras station, overlooking a busy street with many new and interesting sights. Although there were some motors, there seemed to be a lot of coolies pulling rickshaws and heavily-loaded carts in the wet streets.
I rang up for transport and was collected by an Indian driver and taken through a wet, flooded countryside to the airfield at St.Thomas' Mount, some ten miles to the south-west of Madras. (The place was commonly referred to as “Tommy's Mount”). Along the roads, gangs of almost naked coolies dragged heavy two-wheeled carts loaded with timber or oil-drums, struggling with their unwieldy vehicles to avoid other traffic. I had never seen men work in that manner before. Hundreds of coolies were working in the rain on a new concrete road out to Tambaram without any aid from mechanical equipment, everything being done by man power.
I reported my arrival to Major Dando, the Company Commander of No.3 Company and was given quarters until they could find me a job. The airfield looked like a swamp and outside my room the ground was under inches of water. A “flap” was on, due to the expected arrival of the Commanding Officer on a tour of inspection, so nobody was interested in my arrival and I had to hang around for several days with little to do. I went into Madras one day to have a photograph taken for my Indian Army identity card, and during this visit I had a look round some of the shops. Later, I managed to get a few more trips into Madras and during one of them I bought two opals from a native jeweller with the idea of having them made into brooches; they are still unmounted! I soon made friends with Lt.Reg Farrar who had just been made O.C. 210 Wing Signal Section and was working very hard to try and re-organise a rather run-down section.
During my stay at St.Thomas' Mount I had the services of an Indian bearer called Saba; he laid out a complete change of clean clothes for me each morning, while those worn the previous day were sent to the dhobi to be washed. They were returned later the same afternoon washed, starched and ironed. The starching was sometimes so thorough that my khaki-drill shorts could be stood up by themselves. This daily laundry was the custom wherever I went in India. Saba also waited on me at meals in the Mess and wore a special white mess-uniform for this duty. Although the Madrassis were generally small people, Saba was a rather tall well-built man who spoke fair and understandable English.
From our quarters on the airfield at St.Thomas' Mount one could see the high ground of the Mount to the north where stood the 16th century church of Our Lady; this replaced an earlier building which was reputed to stand on the site of the martyrdom of St.Thomas the Apostle in A.D.78. There is no evidence for this and the story rests entirely on tradition. Unfortunately I didn't get an opportunity to visit the Mount during my short stay in the area. On one of my trips into Madras I returned along the sea-coast where fishingboats were pulled up on the long sandy beaches out of the reach of the heavy surf. When I returned to collect my identity-card photograph, I bought a python skin handbag for Margaret and sent it home as a Forces duty-free parcel. This involved sewing it up in calico with a special Customs declaration form pasted on. We were allowed to send a number of these duty-free parcels from time to time.
Major Dando gave me orders to take over a Detachment of 210 Wing Signal Section which was stationed on the airfield at Arkonam (now known as Arakkonam) and in difficulties, and on my last day at St.Thomas' Mount, I helped the Second-in-Command, Captain Ashwin with a Court of Inquiry on the desertion of an Enlisted Follower, one Masalchi Yadya. Ashwin was rather shaky as he had just been involved in a driving accident at Arkonam, in which a Section truck had been hit by a train at a level crossing, resulting in the death of an Indian driver and the destruction of the vehicle. Unfortunately, Ashwin was driving the truck at the time, having taken over from the Indian driver against all the regulations. This unfortunate accident, which happened the day after I arrived at Madras, resulted in the death of Signalman Sacriya, a man of my new Detachment, the write-off of a Section truck and a Court-Martial for Captain Ashwin.
Following Ashwin's mishap I was given strict orders not to drive vehicles when an Indian driver was available. However, as the driver was responsible for his vehicle, they were usually inseparable. The next day, Saturday, the 10th of November, I left for Arkonam in a 3-ton truck with a dare-devil Indian driver who did not believe in speed limits. We were soon pulled up for speeding by an irate R.A.F. Squadron Leader who we had frightened by passing at 40 m.p.h. between strings of bullock-carts on a very bad road - our 3-tonner was clearly marked with a 20 m.p.h. limit sign. Unfortunately, the driver only spoke Tamil and I couldn't easily communicate with him so I got the blame.
We travelled a little more sedately for a short time, passing between wide stretches of flooded paddy-fields with green shoots rising through the water. Almost halfway to Arkonam we passed through the large village of Sriperumbudur with tall sculptured towers of Hindu temples and a large wheeled object in the main street covered with corrugated iron sheets for protection from the weather. On a later visit I examined it and found it to be an enormous Juggernaut car used on festival days to parade the image of the local Hindu deity round the streets. Pulled by many hundreds of men with no apparent method of steering, this must have been an exciting spectacle. I heard later that if a house got in the way of the procession there was no alternative but to pull it down so that the car could pass. In the past it was often the case that devotees would be crushed under the wheels of Juggernaut cars either voluntarily or by accident in the crush of thousands of people. Looking under the corrugated-iron cover, the car could be seen to be a massive carved wooden structure fitted with many large wooden wheels with the big steel axles carrying the cast inscription - Dorman Long, Middlesborough!
It was quite dark when I arrived at Arkonam airfield and found the Officers Mess. The weather was very wet with pools of water everywhere but I found some quarters and settled in. My proper work was at last ready to begin.