Granddad’s Army - Part Two
Our trip to West Africa took us to Sierra Leone. A huge convoy was formed and being a naval vessel, we were one of the escorts, on the Dutch ship the Queen Emma. We didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing at that time and we kept on heading west in this convoy. We all thought we were going to America for some reason or other because we were going west and west and west. We must have gone halfway across the Atlantic before we ultimately turned south. We saw some wondrous things, flying fish, water spouts, and had some very rough weather which made me seasick for a little while. I had to do some work on board, cleaning, we all took part in that, and various odd jobs around the place. I did some clerical work as well.
When we got to West Africa, it became evident what we were there for. The first morning we were there, a brilliant sunny morning, we were at anchor off Freetown. They launched two of our landing craft, only unfortunately one of them went on to a beach in some very soft sand and got stuck and couldn’t get off again. To my knowledge they never did get it off. It just sank lower and lower into this soft sand. We lost it and I can remember typing out a long report on it for submission to the Admiralty. But thereafter the Navy did a lot of exercises with these landing craft.
There was one dreadful episode while we were still on the ship. We used to be granted shore leave in the afternoon and one of the batmen got very drunk. He was picked up by the civilian police in Freetown and locked up overnight. We got a message from the chief of police to send an escort to get him back to the ship. Unfortunately I was picked as one of his escorts. We had to be smartly dressed with rifles and bayonets. A corporal was in charge of us. We were put ashore and had to man the ceremonial guard on the foreshore, right turn, quick march, and we had to march all through Freetown to the main police station which was right at the back of the town. There we halted outside and stood to attention trying to look as if we were soldiers. Actually we were two clerks. I’d never sloped arms so when the corporal said, “Slope arms,” I had to do it as best I could. But I managed quite well because I’d done a little practising in the cabin. The dishevelled-looking prisoner was eventually marched out, handcuffed to a policeman. The corporal insisted that the handcuffs were removed and ordered him to fall in between myself and my colleague.
“Stand up straight.” He was looking filthy dirty, very much the worse for wear.
“Right, son, slope arms, right turn, quick march.”
And the three of us with the prisoner had to march right down through the main streets of Freetown feeling a little bit foolish and a little bit overawed – I’d never been an escort before and none of us were very experienced at doing anything like this. But we managed and got back to the ship where there was a naval patrol. They relieved us of our prisoner and took him out to the guardship which at that time was the depot ship in Freetown harbour. He was taken down to the cells, tried by court martial and sentenced to fourteen days in the cells. When he was due to come out, we had to go and fetch him back. On the way back to our own ship, I said to him,
“How did you get on?”
He said to me, “Well, I’ve been in prison in Glasgow Barlinnie and a few other places but they weren’t anything as harsh as that detention on that depot ship. I’m going straight now, I couldn’t stand that again.”
But of course he got into trouble time and time again although I don’t think he ever got as far as having to be put in the cells again.
I had another little trip before we came home. The Royal Ulsterman, one of the ships of our small fleet, was designated to take a field hospital destined for some remote spot in Chad and we were to take it down to Lagos. One of the captains took me with him as his clerk with my portable typewriter and a few sheets of paper. We were some time on the boat and of course being a ferry boat it didn’t carry much water, so water was rationed which was a bit of a trial. The personnel of the field hospital were all doctors and male and female nurses. All the army personnel were the rank of sergeant or above, the idea being, I believe, that they were going to recruit staff in Lagos, train them and move up into Chad, or somewhere in that area. If you went up on the boat deck after dark every corner was occupied by a doctor or a nurse or else somebody else, but certainly couples. They were all good friends, I think.
We duly got to Lagos and disembarked the field hospital. We were tied up alongside a quay which was across the harbour from Lagos and I had one or two little adventures there. We were there for about three weeks waiting for a load of cadets who were all West African frontier troops who were to travel back on our boat deck. So the army personnel, the commandos and myself, all moved into a cabin of our own. Very comfortable it was too. And just waited. We didn’t have much work to do of course. I remember there were always local traders alongside the ship, and if you lowered a bucket over the side with a shilling in the bottom of it, when you pulled it back it was full of fruit. That was wonderful. And I know I had two pairs of khaki trousers made to measure, overnight. They measured me one night and they were there next morning. I think they cost me ten shillings.
While we were there, the Governor of Lagos, a British diplomat I suppose in those days, invited us to play cricket against his team. The team was supposed to be all officers but the CO said to me,
“You play cricket, don’t you?”
And I said, “Well, yes, I do.”
And he said, “You’ll have to play because we haven’t got any cricketers amongst us.”
So I said, “OK.”
We duly went up to the Governor’s residence and they had a lovely cricket field behind it – a nice table, nice pitch – and we had a game of cricket. We were all in khaki shorts and khaki shirts, no badges of rank or anything. You didn’t know who anybody was, you just played. I had rather a good game, held my batting, made a few runs and then did some bowling for a few wickets. We all entertained ourselves, it was a nice warm afternoon, ideal. When the match was over and we went across to the marquee, the Governor’s wife said,
“I’m awfully sorry, but I have to charge you a shilling each for your tea.”
So we all handed over a shilling. It was all the money I had, but we had a lovely tea. When that was all over and we’d had a drink or two, there was a dance floor laid out so we started dancing with the band. By that time it was the evening and it was dark and I was doing rather well with the Governor’s daughter. I’d just got to a stage where we thought it would be rather nice to look at the cricket pitch in the dark, when a pair of bloody redcaps came and walked me off the scene. They said,
“This is an officers’ do. You shouldn’t be here.”
I said, “I’ve been playing cricket just as well as anybody else.”
“Yes, well, you may have been, but you shouldn’t be here dancing with them. So we’re taking you back to the ship.”
So back to the ship I went.
In a day or so we’d embarked the Royal West African frontier forces troops and settled them in on the boat deck with their mattresses and off we went. We were getting a bit bored by this time, nothing to do, and the commandos volunteered to do some painting. There we were, painting the ship’s boats, sailing in the south Atlantic, calm seas, hot sun; there was a war on, no bother about that. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the food was good.
Anyway, we got back to Freetown and shortly after that we re-embarked on the Queen Emma and sailed for home in company with the other Dutch ship the Princess Beatrix. The Beatrix broke down on the way and both ships called in to one of the islands somewhere to refuel and then the Beatrix broke down again and we had to go into Gibraltar for repairs. We had a long weekend in Gibraltar then we went back and sailed up the Clyde.
Sailing up the Clyde there was a light covering of snow. It was quite late in the afternoon, and there were two destroyers ahead of us. And just as we were going up the Clyde with the sun in the west behind us, it lit up the snow on the shore on either side of the channel.
Looking back, when I had rheumatic fever in Bradford early in 1941 and I was so ill, the consultant said to me when I was getting better,
“I really think you ought to take a discharge from the army because you’re never going to be fit enough again to carry out army duties. I think you should leave and you’ll no doubt get a pension. I’ll give you a couple of weeks to think it over.”
If I’d been sensible, I’d have left the army and got my pension. But for some reason I said,
“No, I’ll stay in the army and take my chance.”
I was downgraded medical category from A1 to about a B5, but no one noticed it. I was demobbed in December 1945 after serving in North Africa and Sicily. In March 1946 I married Barbara, who had nursed me in hospital in Bradford when I had rheumatic fever.
Last summer we celebrated our sixtieth wedding anniversary.
© RWG 2007
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