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A Child of the Raj, or Grandma's Life

by Warwickshire Libraries Heritage and Trading Standards

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
Warwickshire Libraries Heritage and Trading Standards
People in story: 
Mrs. Carmen Pickering
Location of story: 
India and the UK
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 May 2005

One day I saw the First Officer of the Women’s Royal Indian Navy walking through the Madras Club, so I asked her if I could join the W.R.I.N.S. Her name was First Officer Dean, she told me I would have to wait until I was 17 ½ years old. So I guess I joined in about mid 1943.
The first hurdle was getting my father to agree to my going to Bombay H.M.I.N.S. shore base Feroze, to get general training etc. Marching, learning the ranks of all the services. Pop relented when a friend of mine, Rene, went as well. Once in Bombay we were lodged in a building but were evacuated in the middle of the night as the roof started to cave in. Our new headquarters was in a very luxurious block of flats. It overlooked the sea and had marble bathrooms with gold taps, hot and cold running water - not like home!
We clambered around the training ship, it was amazing what a swing there was up in the ship’s crows next, even with a slight swell. We fired guns but our main task was to learn deciphering and coding.
We walked to our classes but would find the remains of bodies on the pavements. Fingers and toes, the Parsees akin to Zarostrionism had their ‘Towers of Silence’ where they placed their dead in the middle of Bombay. The vultures used to drop the bits of bodies around.
A year after I joined up I went on a course in Bombay to train as a Third Officer.
On my return to Bombay, there were piles of rubble everywhere and the stench got to the back of one’s throat. Apparently an ammunition ship had exploded in Bombay harbour taking half Bombay with it.
My friend Rene was with me, I am pleased to say that we were top in all the I.Q. tests. We were rather young to get commissions but everything rested on our knowledge of English. The messages came tapped out in morse code, so sometimes quite a lot of guesswork was needed. I used to wonder where some of the submarines ended up when this involved a longitude and latitude figures in degrees.
We did a certain amount of parading, often hard bitten male alcoholic officers would be in charge. Their remarks would reduce us to giggles and then we would be told off.
I was sent to Delhi on a cookery course for some reason. The journey by train from Madras to Delhi took about 36 hours, it was so hot. I put a wet flannel on my face to cool down but it was dry within minutes.
As the weather was so hot in Delhi, the working hours were morning and 4 p.m. onwards. We slept outside with mosquito nets rigged up to lines of ropes. In the middle of the night the wind got up and the structure blew down on all of us.
I had made myself a lovely green and white striped dress, when I hung it up in my room I noticed a blob of gravy on it. Being tired I intended to clean it off in the morning. The next morning there was a hole where the gravy had been.
During the war Madras was full of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, so there were lots of lovely dances and parties to go to.
I left the W.R.I.N.S. on the 15th March 1946. Around that time the prisoners of war from the dreadful Japanese camps started to arrive in Madras. The Madras Club supervised unloading the P.O.W.’s from army trucks. They were like walking matchsticks.
The Governor’s wife Lady Hope went to meet the POW’s from ships docking in Madras harbour. Lady Hope herself was as thin as a rake and people kept coming up to her and asking her how she had got on.
One man had escaped from Burma through the jungle to India, even his dog’s footpads were sore.
Passages back to India were hard to get. The Mauretania had cabins with 6 bunks in and I managed to get a place. She was a wonderful ship, so large the Suez canal had to be cleared of all shipping so that she could squeeze through.
Most of the passengers were to take part in the Victory Parade.
My parents left India later on a small cargo ship called ‘The City of Hong Kong’. She had a very bad accident hitting a jetty and smashing her bows, so my parents were delayed for a month or so in Port Said while repairs took place.
I stayed with my grandmother Rhode Chowne and Aunt Cis at No. 19 St. John’s Road. Percy and Nancy were there also. Sometimes I stayed with Aunt Daisy and Uncle John in Balmoral Avenue, Beckenham, Kent.
My first winter was the beginning of 1947 it was very cold. No nice fur boots or warm anoraks were available.
My parents got an unfurnished flat called The White House in Penge, a lovely Georgian building for £2 a week. We were upstairs, all our furniture in the flat had come boxed from our house in India. I was with my parents for a few months. As the war was over, nobody needed cipher officers, so I joined the W.R.N.S. starting at the bottom as they would not transfer my commission.
After a spell at a training camp in Burghfield where we spent our time scrubbing floors I was posted to H.M.S. Ariel near Warrington. H.M.S. Ariel was a fleet air arm station, where we learnt to service radar equipment in the fleet arm planes. In those days they had huge valves like light bulbs.
I became a Petty Officer, then an instructor. I remember taking hitch hikes to Liverpool and Manchester, where the devastation was total. It is amazing how one finds ones way around a bombed out city. Enormously high walls just hung there not supporting anything. Little paths had been created amongst the debris leading to shops selling very little.
My boyfriend at H.M.S. was a Lieutenant, he had red wavy hair, he kept telling me what a wonderful man his friend Roy Pickering was, so I thought I had better get to know this highly thought of person.
The opportunity arose as I was for some reason chosen to represent H.M.S. Arial sports committee at a conference in Southampton for several days. All the fanatics who played in tennis and hockey were furious (rightly!)
It was a long train journey from Warrington to Southampton. I had washed a blue dressing gown and had removed the covered buttons as I thought they might rust, so I took my needle and thread and used the travelling hours to sew them back on again, sitting by the window and chatting to a nice Petty Officer. I had noticed Lt. Pickering sitting next to the corridor opposite me. When my Petty Officer got up to go to the loo, Pickering left his seat and sat next to me. When the Petty Officer returned Pickering decided to stay in his new seat in spite of stern looks.
So after that we went to ship’s company dances. I thought he was rather forward as he held my elbow escorting me back to my cabin. He asked me what the population of Madras was. I told him about 500, if you counted the poor whites, i.e. those who were not club members, maybe there were 1,000 or so. Roy Pickering who at that time was rather left wing said but when he saw pictures of Indian towns they were teeming with people. Apparently I looked at him and said “Obviously I haven’t counted the Indians” He was absolutely shocked that someone could say such a thing. I was sharing a cabin with Myrtle Matthews at the time, we are still in telephone contact.
We became engaged with a lovely ring. Roy’s mother knew her jewellery and all the pawn shops in Scotland Road Liverpool.
I was selected to go on the Officer’s Course. This was a Greenwich Naval College. It was a wonderful place. The dining hall having the painted ceiling. Rows and rows of tables with lamps and naval silver laid out. The food was out of this world. We were shown the kitchens, rows of small ovens cooking the roasts.
After a few weeks I started to feel queasy in the morning at breakfast time. The specialist confirmed that Victoria was well established inside me.
So I duly had to resign from the W.R.N.S. and our marriage was brought forward to February 26th 1949.
The wedding was a lovely occasion, taking place at Culcheth church followed by a wedding breakfast in the Officers’ Mess at H.M.S. Arial. The captain was there and I had a guard of honour.
William Roy Pickering was an exceptional man. Clever and generous, no better combination.

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