- Contributed by
- Alan Shaw
- People in story:
- Lieutenant Alan Linsley Shaw RE
- Location of story:
- Halifax, Yorks to Bombay via Cape Town
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 November 2004
In 1942 India awaited , virtually unchanged. This was a typical scene on the Saugor to Jhansi road, central India.The bullock cart had not changed because it was perfect for the job it had to do.
Passage to India?
When they wanted a man
to encourage the van
or to shout “hullaloo” in the rear,
or to storm a redoubt,
they straightway sent out
for Abdul, the Bulbul Ameer
(From page 244 of “The Scottish Student’s Songbook” 3rd Edition 1892. But around 1990 the Scottish Universities announced cessation of publication of this book “ because students no longer sing” .How sad!)
Ten thousand miles away by sea, less than three months since the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Army had taken Singapore and 50,000 British and imperial troops and were advancing rapidly through Burma. By the 7th March they entered Rangoon, by 20th May they had reached the Chindwin River and the first Burma campaign was over. The south west monsoon with its torrential rains was now in full swing and both sides at a standstill. Censorship ruled.
On 27th February 1942, after a riotous farewell evening at 222 Field Company’s Officers Mess at Winchester I arrived home in Edinburgh in the early hours of the following day. Marjory and I made the most of our last few days of married life on one weeks embarkation leave before I was required to report to the RE Depot, now moved from Chatham to the old Duke of Wellington’ Regimental Depot at Halifax, on 7th March 1942.
Time was made even shorter by the need to acquire tropical kit and make up luggage into three categories: “Cabin” (one large or two small suitcases) “Wanted on Voyage” and “Not wanted on Voyage”.The two latter embraced my trusty “valise” or canvas bedding roll stuffed with last minute additions and a black painted insect proof metal cabin trunk.
The secret posting letter from War Office Cheltenhan to CRE 47 Div merely said “for tropical service”. A stronger hint was the two page schedule of rates of pay for an officer serving with various branches of the Indian Army, and a fleeting reference to “India & Burma - Essential Mufti” . Two paragraphs seemed outdated by events, but we obeyed instructions: :-
“BAGGAGE:Your allowance is 4 cwts and this must not be exceeded”
“MUFTI: You are advised to take out one suit of well cut plain clothes which can be copied out there as required: Take any additional mufti within your authorised scale of baggage, you may require it on leave.”
“Mufti” had not been worn in the UK for two and a half years. A cheering note was that the pay of a married RE Lieutenant under 30 years of age, serving with the Indian Army, was over £50 per month.It was true that of this only £4.50 was marriage allowance!
Setting off for Halifax on 7th March I discovered on arrival that Marjory could join me until the sailing date.As a working school teacher in term time she had to apply for headmasters permission. A few months earlier another colleague at that school had been refused. Her husband sailed for the East and was taken prisoner at Singapore on 15th February. The headmaster was so upset by that experience that Marjory was told to go on indefinite leave until my departure. We had another treasured week together.
On 17th March 1942 our RE Officers Draft RGHOF left Halifax railway station for an unknown destination. As the train entered a long dark tunnel no one spoke. Each was submerged in his own private thoughts.
A couple of hours later the train came to rest at Liverpool quayside. Dimly visible in driving sleet, a line of grey troopships lay in the River Mersey. Motor launches ferried us to them. As ours approached the accommodation ladder of a twin funnelled ship the Embarkation Staff Officer leading us missed his footing, fell into the dark, swirling waters of the River Mersey and was swept away to his death.
The rest of us made the transfer to the ladder heart in mouth, but without further incident. It was a gloomy start to our voyaging. I shared a two berth cabin with another young RE officer who I had not met before. We were on the starboard side (the hot side on an outward passage to India) but considered ourselves very fortunate.Our new home was the “Nieuw Holland” of 11,066 gross tonnage of the Netherlands KPM line and now under British management. Launched in 1927 and registered in Batavia,with a top speed of 15 knots,she had been designed to carry 123 1st class and 50 3rd class passengers, plus a crew of 199,on the Java-Australia service. As a troopship she now carried 2,000 passengers.
Officers all had cabins but the troops lived in mess decks and slept in hammocks, conditions identical to those in the troopship “Neuralia” when I had sailed to Scandinavia on a Scotttish schoolboys holiday tour ten years earlier. However this time our troops were to endure a 10,000 mile two month voyage, mostly through the tropics and under blacked out conditions at night. Some time after dark the convoy slipped its moorings and headed out into the Irish sea, zigzagging in unison for protection against U-boats once out of the Mersey estuary. A day or so later we sailed up the Clyde estuary into the great anchorage known as the ‘Tail of the Bank”.
Here we merged into one of the biggest convoys ever assembled. Ships of all shapes, size, and descriptions lay at anchor. Ahead of the “Nieuw Holland lay the 20,000 ton “Orion” of the P and O line, carrying 5,000 troops. Not far away to starboard the graceful lines of a two funnel ship proclaimed her Union Castle Line origin. Nearby was a curiously shaped two funnel Royal Navy depot ship.The more knowledgeable among us discerned under the uniform grey paint many famous ocean liners including the “Winchester Castle”.
Like all troopships “Nieuw Holland”had a military Commandant, an elderly Lt Colonel “dug out”of retirement for the duration of the war, supported by an Adjutant, Regimental Sergeant Major, and various Non Commissioned officers.Their job was to prevent the voyage from becoming a pleasure cruise by continuously creating employment for everyone on board. Perhaps it only seemed like that. We had to be kept fit enough to be of use when we landed in India two months later.
There were deck games, physical training sessions, Urdu lessons for those destined to join the Indian Army, and for the officers, a roster of Orderly Officer duties stretching some way into the future. These involved attendance on the ship’s captain and the Commandant during daily inspection of every person and nook and cranny in the ship, inspection of food and hygiene in the troop decks. Sunday church services included a choir recruited and rehearsed during weekdays. Evenings were occupied by chess or bridge, or by a sing-song around the piano in the Officers Lounge. The tradition of self entertainment still lingered on and many were quite musically talented.
As the weather improved and temperature steadily increased large canvas ventilating tubes were rigged from the masts and ducted through open hatchways into the troopdecks below. To eliminate any possibility of the convoy’s position being known and possibly signalled to the enemy, the captain’s estimate of daily latitude and longitude was never disclosed. However, each day, one of the passengers, an RAF Flight Lieutenant with a very accurate watch and a sextant went up to the boat deck behind one of the funnels and discreetly shot the sun. We always knew our approximate position and the bearing on which we were sailing was obvious enough at any time.
The convoy sailed from the Clyde on 23rd March.”Nieuw Holland” carried, as well as our RE Officers draft RGHOF for India, elements of the 5th British Division (“Y” shoulder flash) and 29th Independent Brigade Group (shoulder flash white ring on a black square) and a Commando unit.We sailed West into the Atlantic past the Mull of Kintyre with frequent spells of zigzagging. At a siren blast from the convoy Commodore’s ship all ships turned together through an angle of 45 degrees. It was amazing that there were no collisions.
One day, at about the latitude of the Canary Islands, we noticed that despite a heavy overcast of low cloud the temperature was comfortably mild. We remained out of sight of land until in the first week of April we entered the harbour of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and lay there, unable to go ashore, for five days. Powerful naval units joined us. We were prevented from sailing, we were told, by the suspected presence of German submarines in the offing.The real reason was not disclosed until long after. On or about 9th April our giant convoy resumed its passage for a further two weeks to the Cape of Good Hope. There it split into two, one half going to Durban
To our delight our half sailed into Cape Town Harbour.As our ship tied up in the brilliant afternoon sun, an army staff car arrived on the quayside and decanted an Embarkation Staff Officer. The driver also emerged, an extremely attractive girl in military uniform, who evoked a deafening barrage of wolf whistles and unbelieving cries of “Look! - a woman!" The entire complement rushed to the port side to see this vision and “Nieuw Holland” took on an alarming list shorewards.
There was great excitement on being told we could go ashore. A few weeks earlier a convoy of Dominion troops had come ashore and out of boredom vandalised areas of the city. The good citizens now took positive action to prevent a recurrence by preparing for us a memorable programme of hospitality. They referred to us as “Imperial troops” making us feel important.
We continued to be based on our respective ships but rarely stepped on board until the convoy resumed its voyage.Vivid memories remain of being taken with several shipboard friends to the Kelvingrove Country Club, to the Rotunda Ballroom, and to the private houses of residents who were members of the Hospitality Committee. We were taken up Table Mountain by cable car and visited many historic places in and around Cape Town. The April climate was superb.There was no night time black-out. Cape Town seemed paradise on earth. For those in our convoy who did not survive the war it was a last experience of Western hospitality. Those who did return retained a lifetime memory of South African kindness..
Three days later our convoy resumed its voyage to India. But its composition seemed to have changed. On the way south from Freetown I had seen, close by, the battleship “Malaya”. I had been aboard her as a schoolboy during a Fleet visit to the Firth of Forth. Then she had had two funnels, but now like other refitted naval ships she had a single combined funnel. Her place alongside us had been taken later by a three funnel eight inch gunned “County” class cruiser. Some time after leaving Cape Town another battleship sailed nearby. It had a single combined funnel but with the addition of a black smoke deflector, one of the old “R” class battleships.
Eventually the news came that Madagascar had been successfully invaded (Code named “Operation Ironclad”). The delay at Freetown had been the first meeting, under Rear-Admiral Syfret, Commander-in-Chief of the combined operations force to plan final details of this invasion.”Winchester Castle” was the Assault headquarters ship, “Malaya” was the flagship of Admiral Syfret, until he reached South Africa when “Malaya” was ordered back to the Mediterranean, to be replaced as his flagship by “Ramilies” from the far Eastern Fleet.The three funnel cruiser was “Devonshire” who also took part. Our convoy had acted as cover.
We arrived in India on Sunday 17th May 1942. Long before the coast was sighted “Nieuw Holland” sailed in a flat calm, through small groups of picturesque fishing boats, seemingly too frail to be so far out of sight of land. We entered Bombay harbour and tied up at a quayside.
The Disembarkation Staff Officer came on board. There was a brief opportunity for us all to go ashore. Some hired two wheeled rickshaws, pulled by men sweating profusely in the heat. It was a shock to find ourselves employing human beings as draft animals in this way. But to them it was their livelihood. Bombay’s average daily temperature range in May is 91 to 80 degrees F, with relative humidity 74 to 68%. The sights and smells ranged from the sublimely exotic to the horrific. We had been given a fleeting snapshot view of the multi-facetted paradox which is India.
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