BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

A Marine's Tale Part 7

by 1956baby

Contributed by 
People in story: 
William Cockburn
Location of story: 
Sailing to India aboard The Orion
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 May 2005

The lesser mortals in the Army and Air Force had to stay on the lower decks growing more bloody minded by the day.
The worst duty was manning the watertight doors on these same lower decks , with orders to close them if the ship were torpedoed.

Not having been told our destination and not having been consulted as to how to get there we had to rely on "buzzes"for information as to where we were at any given time.Initially after leaving the Clyde we figured our course to be out into the Atlantic to the North of Ireland.We must have almost reached America before turning South and then East towards the West coast of Africa where we turned North to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar in the dead of night almost a week after leaving Scotland.

Once in the Med we were surprised and delighted to find that all black out restrictions had been lifted .So we proceeded with Orion lit up like a Christmas Tree.After almost five years of unrelieved gloom this was a marvellous morale booster ,especially when we passed other ships homeward bound and we could imagine what a glorious picture the Orion must have made.

New Horizons .

These relaxations were possible because by this stage of the war the Med and all the countries surrounding it to the North and South were safely in Allied hands.By the same token we deduced that our ultimate destination was the Far East and that we would be aboard this trooper a while longer yet .We had not stopped at Gib and we carried on full speed the whole length of the Med out of sight of land until we came alongside in Port Said.For most of us this was our first sight of exotic " furrin parts" so we watched the hustle and bustle on the dockside with great excitement whilst on the seaward side scores of bumboats vied with each other to sell us their wares .I was really fascinated to see orange trees heavy with fruit just a few yards from the ship's side , previously a townie from Manchester I had only seen oranges in greengrocers' shops never dreaming that one day I would see them actually growing under the hot,tropical sun.

It was not reasonable to expect that the thousands of troops aboard could be granted normal shore leave but after three or so weeks confined to the ship and almost our first sight of land since leaving the U.K. we were delighted to be fell in on the quayside even though it was merely for a brief march round the town to stretch our legs.We managed two such conducted tours before sailing on through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. The passage of the canal was done in daylight and we had plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of both banks , especially as these banks seemed perilously close to the Orion's tall sides .When we entered the Red Sea I was thrilled to see a small camel train on the skyline of the southern shore.With no human habitation in sight it reminded me of the desert films that we saw as boys , Beau Geste ,Four Feathers etc.
A few more days took us through the Gulf of Aden and across the Arabian Sea to the Indian port of Bombay where we were disembarked into a fleet of lorries which were to take us to a camp at a place called Chembur ,some few miles away.
To the sights and sounds were now added the smells of the East and I am afraid to say we all found them a bit much at first.
My most vivid impression of that short journey was when passing some railway sidings we saw a donkey that had been neatly cut in two by an engine , lying there with its entrails hanging out while railway staff went about their work without taking any notice.

Chembur proved to be a transit camp something like HMS Robertson but with much better food and continuous blazing sunshine.Our huts - known as Bashas - consisted of a low brick wall with rattan rooves supported by poles.Between the tops of the walls and the rooves was fresh air which surprised us somewhat until we had been there long enough to realise that they were ideally suited to the climate. Our beds were wooden frames on short legs with woven ropes to lay the mattress on.These were called charpoys and were very comfortable.It was wise to put a small tin under each leg and fill same with paraffin or similar which discouraged the local ants from getting at your juicy white flesh via said legs.Also we were equipped with mosquito nets which indeed proved essential to keep out the wildlife , quite apart from the "mozzies" they had insects there of all shapes and sizes most of which - we were assured - were quite harmless.Anyone want to test this theory ? Thought not.

The basha was spacious enough for our needs and was one of many arranged in rows with true military dressing.Between each basha and its neighbour was sufficient space to string lines to hang our dhobying *,also in our case this space housed our very own Char Wallah who in a fit of originality we named Johnnie.He had a small charcoal urn from which he produced tea of the finest quality , he also sold tiny sweet coconut cakes that were truly delicious .He would squat at his post from dawn until late at night ,providing us with marvellous service for a tiny cost.Tiny as this cost was there were times when we were so strapped as not to be able to afford them.On such occasions Johnnie advanced credit .Through Johnnie we were introduced to the Indian concept of bearers or servants ,and to the fact that even the lowliest of whites should have them because whites were not supposed to work and could easily afford the meagre wages these poor people commanded.Just out from Blighty and not yet having got our knees brown our indignation at this state of affairs knew no bounds.

At Chembur we had our first experience of being paid monthly,up till then we had received our pittances weekly.As my mother said ,it wasn't much but at least it was regular .Now we were to be paid once every four weeks and very rapidly discovered the condition known as having more month than money.
Having received our pay we would make a bee-line for the local railway station there to catch the train to Victoria Terminus ,Bombay.The walk to the station took us over some waste ground containing the burning ghats ( crematoria) for the nearby village.These ghats were a simple steel frame made from scrap metal so designed that the dead body to be disposed of was placed on a platform under which the fire was laid.The body would arrive on a litter ,usually covered with flowers except for the face ,and be put on the platform over the fire .The body itself would then be covered with wood again except for the face.The bier would then be lit and relatives watched until the flames consumed it .Indian funerals were big social occasions and it was quite normal to see a funeral procession threading its way through the city streets led by a band with the dear departed following on the litter ,accompanied by the mourners.One day we were idly watching a cremation when an urchin sidled up to us with outstretched hand "Him my father ,him burn good " He thought we ought to pay for the entertainment his family was providing.

Train journeys in India are also quite an experience .We being white and privileged we always had seats but the space allowed for the local population was never enough and the train often went into Bombay with people crowded together on the roof while others clung to the sides.When two trains passed each other these brave souls literally had their lives in their own hands.On arrival at VT as the Victoria Terminus was known ,the routine seldom varied.First a walk round the shops then something to eat at a forces club run by good hearted civilian ladies
After which a visit to the cinema , a palatial place as good as anything in the U.K.Bombay had many fine buildings and it was a source of amazement to us that these great edifices were constructed without any of the modern equipment used in Europe,their scaffolding was a cats cradle of poles lashed together with ropes.After the flicks we took the well trodden path to Mongini's Bar there to be entertained by an elderly ladies' string ensemble while drinking bathtub gin.

A number of possibilities presented themselves to the licentious soldiery upon leaving Mongini's but these entailed an expensive ride in a horse drawn carriage ( gharry ) and as by this time we were in our usual penurious state we would make for VT and home. A feature of any night in an Indian city was the hundreds of people who lived actually on the street and simply unrolled their mattresses etc. On the pavement to sleep.An unthinking pedestrian could deliver a kick to some unfortunate's head as he tried to thread his way home.This was a particular risk at Chembur station where we had to cross the line by a footbridge.Said bridge was a favourite dormitory for local homeless people and by the time we made our unsteady way across late at night there was barely an open space to put one's feet .Consequently our passage was usually punctuated by oaths in a variety of languages .We normally thought this to be a huge laugh but I was stung by a comment in the Indian Times to the effect that the Indian labourer resting after a hard day's work had to suffer kicks and blows from the English labourer returning from a drunken night out.

Fortunately for the native population our normal state of acute poverty meant that these expeditions only occurred once a month during the brief spell of affluence just after payday .
At other times we had to make do with what was available free of charge in the camp.Among these facilities was a cinema of sorts .Although it changed its feature film weekly it always showed the same newsreel,apparently because part of it covered an island landing carried out by some of the Marines who were permanent residents at Chembur camp and seemed to resent our arrival.Apparently we had been billed to them as the Support Squadron Eastern Flank - heroes of Normandy and Walcheren ,brought here at great expense and now available to bring their war to a swift end. Most of them due to no fault of their own sat out the war in relative safety while we valiant types had been risking our all on other foreign fields.The animosity was not helped when some member of the naval top brass decided he wanted to inspect and welcome us to South East Asia Command.
The whole camp paraded on the road running through the middle of the camp.We were 334 Flotilla and were placed at the farthest point from the start of the inspection.Not yet fully acclimatised ,after standing for over an hour under a burning sun often at attention , it was not surprising when a number of our lads began to keel over .By the time the Big Wheel got to us we were distinctly under strength and feeling very aggrieved .The inspecting Admiral came along our ranks making the usual noises associated with this type of occasion and it is reliably reported that having asked one sweaty bootneck what his ambition was the acid answer came "To be an ex-serviceman if you please ,sir !"
There were two other incidents I recall demonstrating this kind of nonsense.Both of these involved the camp Regimental Sergeant Major who had taken a deep dislike to us.Our basha stood on the perimeter of the camp ,which was not fenced.The public main dirt road passed the gable end of our basha and cintinued on until it reached the guardroom at the entrance.When booking out it became our habit to walk up this road rather than going through the camp .One day some of our lads were spotted doing this by the RSM whereupon he immediately put them on a charge for leaving the camp without permission.
The second event concerned us all .Most days were spent doing drills or fatigues while we awaited the arrival of G6 ( Remember her ?).These tasks took the normal form for these sorts of things , sometimes useful ,sometimes essential even but often downright timewasting.It was in this last category that the RSM excelled himself.Dress of the day was the usual denims but we were ordered on this occasion to bring our clasp knives.Never having had cause to use these in our near three years service we were intrigued .Mystified we were marched to a nearby patch of derelict ground which was entirely covered by small and exceedingly prickly cactus plants .This - we were supposed to believe - was to be the site of a football field and we were required to remove the offending cacti using only the clasp knives.As a pointless and painful exercise designed only to frustrate and annoy we thought that this plumbed new depths .Later in my career I discovered there were others who could go deeper still.

During another of our penurious periods Johnnie invited us to his home in the village to meet his family.This we gratefully accepted. He had a large family which was normal ,ensuring enough children to support aged parents even allowing for high rates of infant mortality.(As few adults lived beyond their 30s this seemed to us pointless.)By our standards they were living in grinding poverty but they all bore themselves with great dignity and were charming.Almost all the Indian folk we ever met had these attributes irrespective of their station in life .As the evening went on we were regaled with large quantities of home brewed alcohol which could have doubled as excellent rocket fuel .We were then escorted to the village cinema .This was in the open in a nearby field ,the seats were benches made from planks resting on oil drums and as guests we were ushered on to the front row.The film went on for a couple of hours and seemed to be made up of lots of seemingly unconnected scenes of which none of us could make head or tail.The action went on at breakneck pace to the obvious delight of our friends.The only thing we really grasped was that when one grossly fat actor appeared all the audience fell about laughing .We did wonder if this was because the chance of any of them ever getting fat was so ridiculous as to make the sight of a fat man totally hilarious .

LCG 6 finally arrived in Bombay and our happy band delightedly shook the dust of Chembur off our feet and once more became sea marines.Shortly after rejoining I went down with a high temperature and lacking a sickbay onboard I was despatched to a hospital onshore.I was diagnosed as suffering from Dengue fever .Thsi kept me in dock for several weeks during which time I was instructed in the intricacies of Contract Bridge by three long term patients.It seemed to me on reflection that I was kept in longer than was strictly necessary because they could not find anyone to replace me in their card school.
When I finally was released I found that G6 had sailed without me and that all my kit - including my lashed hammock - was in the hospital basement from where I had to retrieve it.Then ,you guessed it - it was back to Chembur for me !
Thankfully within a day or two I was at VT with all my kit and a travel warrant to take me to where I could rejoin G6 yet again.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Royal Navy Category
Books Category
India Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy