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A Schoolgirl’s War in the Far East

by Dundee Central Library

Mary Anderson nee Hezmalhalch

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Dundee Central Library
People in story: 
Mary Anderson, Mary Hezmalhalch
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Contributed on: 
17 May 2004

In the summer of 1939, my father was on home leave from Calcutta, where he was employed as Superintendent Engineer with the Bengal Assam Steamship Company. About ten days prior to 3rd September 1939, he was recalled and was ordered to report to a train leaving Dundee - destination unknown. He sailed on the first convoy out of the U.K. and was actually at sea when war was declared.

In the spring of 1940, when the U.K. was being heavily bombed, he arranged for my mother, brother and me to go out to Calcutta. We sailed on the SS Orion from Liverpool in July 1940. The vessel was armed and carried depth charges. It was actually a troopship and we were among the few civilians. There were also several Burmese nurses on board. Not long at sea, we developed engine troubles and returned to Glasgow. While docked there in the Clyde, we witnessed the bombing of the city.

Then we set sail again, this time without a convoy, round the north of Ireland and then down to the Atlantic to Freetown for supplies. Small boats came alongside selling their wares. It was all so strange. Then it was on to Cape Town, where we stayed for a few days. I well remember that beautiful city. One party from the ship took in an excursion to Table Mountain. I went on a coach trip along the coast. The beaches were beautiful.

The next stop was Bombay, the voyage taking about six weeks. Then we went on to Calcutta by train. This was a slow journey, taking about three days and two nights. We had a compartment to ourselves and everything was so hot and dirty.

Being of school age, in March 1941 I went to boarding school in Shillong, Assam, and my brother went to school in Darjeeling. We came back to Calcutta in December for three months, then back to school again in March 1942. We were only back at school for a short while when we had to be evacuated. The Japanese were making headway up through Burma and, in fact, were near Imphal - just over the hills from Shillong. My destination was a sister school in Simla, at the other side of India.

In the meantime, my mother had been evacuated from Calcutta to Dehra Dun for safety. The Japanese were getting closer and my father had a motor launch packed with vital equipment ready to make a quick dash up the river Hooghly.

We were six days and five nights altogether on the train. Troops were travelling eastwards towards the front line and our train kept being put into sidings to let their trains move on - hence the length of the journey. Trains in India have different rail gauges, which means changing trains as and when the gauges changed. The last part of the journey was by bus on the winding mountainous roads. On arrival at Simla we were a sorry bunch - very dirty, hot, hungry and, above all, thirsty.

I hated the school in Simla. Since we were all caught up in the emergency, we had to sleep on camp cots in a large dormitory and the sanitation was very basic. It was wonderful when December came along and we left Simla. On our way we stopped off in Delhi and were taken for a sightseeing tour in a Tonga. Eventually we were on our way - next stop Howrah Station, Calcutta.

I did not want to go back to school in Simla and I eventually managed to persuade my father to agree to my attending a commercial college in Calcutta. After qualifying, I got a job with the military organisations. While I was working there, there was an air raid. A few of the civilian staff, including me, went up on the roof and actually watched the Japanese bombers flying overhead on their way to bomb the docks. We had many air raids and, on one particular night when the docks and tram depot were bombed, our whole house shook. That was very frightening.

Calcutta was full of troops. The men returning from the Burma front were in a sorry state. They wandered around the market buying gifts to send home. My mother would intervene and haggle with the shopkeepers on their behalf. Then she took the men home with her for a clean-up and a good meal. This happened regularly - our house was never empty.

When on holiday in Shillong with my mother, I went to a dance in Happy Valley. There must have been about 300 servicemen and we girls must have numbered about 20. We danced to the Squadronaires.

By July 1945, the war with Germany being over, my father decided we should return to the U.K., as at that time India, politically, was in turmoil. We sailed from Bombay on the "Johan an Oldenverd", a Dutch vessel manned by a Javanese crew. This again was a troopship with returning servicemen, many of the officers accompanied by their brides. We were allotted a cabin holding 30 women and children. It was very overcrowded and so hot and stuffy that many of us slept on board until we reached the Mediterranean. We had travelled all round the Cape and now returned via the Suez Canal - this time only taking three weeks.

Mary Anderson. via Dundee Central Library

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