- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Henry Heath, MBE
- Location of story:
- Stafford, Durban, Kenya, Northern Rhodesia, Uganda, Nigeria, Belgian Congo
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 August 2005
In 1938 I, together with many of my former school pals from King Edward VIth School, Stafford, joined the local company of the 6th North Staffordshire Regiment, TA. This was to lead to my being embodied into the regular forces in August 1939 while on camp in the Gower. I was commissioned early in 1940 and by January 1941 was a captain and adjutant of a battalion of the 8th North Staffordshire Regiment, but later had the job of converting this infantry battalion into a Gunner Regiment and myself being recommissioned into the RA. Out of the blue in early 1942 I was promoted major and posted to a senior staff position in East Africa and so began my very first journey overseas.
The long sea voyage to Durban - troopships are not a load of fun believe me - was uneventful beyond minor anti-submarine actions. Having landed in Durban I expected to be transhipped to Mombassa and then to Nairobi but that didn't happen. Hanging around in Clairwood transit camp just outside of Durban for several weeks was just a waste of time relieved only by some excellent local entertainment and wonderful bathing on the coast north of the city. Eventually I was told I was to board a train as part of a contingent of British troops at the start of our overland journey to Nairobi ... very nice for me, l thought, as I was independent and had no troops to command. That was the beginning of a nightmare.
As far as Livingstone and the Victoria Falls all was well ... good engine and clean coaches ... fascinating scenery. On crossing the border at Livingstone that all changed. We were all kicked out and boarded what almost defies description ... a train comprising 7 or 8 old wooden coaches with gauze screens for windows (mostly broken) and the oldest wood-burning engine you can imagine. The pathetically slow journey north through what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia ) involved frequent stops when everybody, irrespective of rank, decamped to collect wood for the engine - that was almost comic relief and provided much humorous banter on the part of the British other ranks. The scene at night with this old Puffing-Billy throwing a fine display of sparks into the night sky is never to be forgotten. In the coaches, ourselves and everything we had was covered with a layer of charcoal and we looked as though we were about to sing in a Minstrel show. I suppose we were so tired we slept just sitting on the hard wooden seats and I can't remember what we did for food but I am certain it wasn't anything to write home about and almost certainly came out of standard army ration packs.
Don't ask me how but eventually we landed at Kalémie on the west side of Lake Tanganyika and boarded a small clapped-out ferry boat. "Cart your own baggage and find your own room on deck, that's it", was all we were told by some harassed MTO whose khaki shirt looked as though it had just been dipped in the lake. We crossed the lake to Kigoma then boarded another train, which should have gone to the scrap yard years before and wheezed our way via Tabora for Mwanza at the southern end of Lake Victoria. Fortunately, the situation here was great deal better organized. We were all glad to board a large well-ordered ferry and could get a much-needed shower, shave and some civilized food but again the deck was our bed. I can't remember just how long we were on that boat but sleeping on deck was definitely by choice and much appreciated as it was so hot and humid that going below deck was intolerable. We landed at Entebbe in Uganda and thence in a fine train headed for Nairobi. In all, the journey took ten days and I estimate that it was some 3200 miles in all. There are unprintable expressions that totally describe our condition on arrival.
This is where truth is indeed stranger than fiction. As a young major of 23 eager to take up a new posting I duly reported to the army headquarters and eventually stood to attention before the senior staff officer, a colonel, and handed him my documentation. His first question floored me "And who the hell are you"? (or words to that effect). The ensuing conversation was to say the least interesting and certainly forthright but the outcome some days later was that I had been sent to East Africa when I should have gone to Lagos, West Africa to join a newly forming WA Division destined for Burma ... unbelievable but true.
From then on, I was on my own apart from being given a travel authority. Having cadged a lift on a spare HQ jeep I had to cart my kit to Eastleigh airfield and argue my way onto an American plane that was fortunately flying to Lagos in Nigeria the next day. I shall always remember my conversation with a very laid back American major. By that time I had accumulated quite a bit of excess baggage and when asked if I could take it with me, he replied, "Sure, bring it along. If there's too much we'll tie it on the tail plane". Fortunately, that proved unnecessary. After a very comfortable night in the US air force mess, we took off early the following morning. That trip took another three days of flying with crumby overnight stops in towns which were then called Louisville and Albertville (then in the former Belgian Congo). Again, another reminiscence - I was travelling with what in India is called a chalumchi - an enamel bowl with a leather strapped-on lid in which one carried all one's toiletries. When I came down the rickety wooden steps from the hotel at 6am the major, who was our pilot, was sitting in a jeep, cigar in mouth, feet on the dashboard. When he saw me, his remarks, in a typical Yankee drawl, will forever live with me. "Say major, what yer got there - yer travelling bed pan? That chalumchi was forever renamed and I used it until I left Rangoon on my return home years later. Eventually I landed in Lagos and almost had to hijack a jeep to drive me about 100 miles north to Ibadan where the 82 (WA) Division was forming up and training prior to going to Burma. Apart from the expected question, "Where the hell do you think you have been?" my reception by the officers I had said farewell to as they left the boat in Freetown harbour some two months previously was cordial but not for delicate ears. Needless to say none of the work I should have done in those two months had been done and with only a British sergeant, a bombardier and an African typist to do all the clerical work I had to fly round like a scalded cat to catch up - a period I would not like to re-live. Having assembled the divisional artillery, formed from several small independent Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) units scattered throughout Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia and after an all too short period of intensive jungle training the Division embarked at Appapa Wharf in Lagos and sailed for Karachi en route for the Arakan and two years fighting in Burma ... how's that for an initiation into foreign travel and unbelievable military incompetence? I often wonder who said, "Whoops" when this was reported back to the War Office.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by John Baines of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Henry Heath and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
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