- Contributed by
- Harry Sheard
- People in story:
- Harry Sheard
- Location of story:
- UK, India, Burma
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 December 2003
Grandad’s War was written for one of my grandsons, who was doing a project for school about the 1939-1945 war. He called it “Grandad’s War”.
I am writing this fifty years after most of it took place, so I may not be very accurate with my dates and places.
Memories fade, but luckily you seem to remember better the things that happened and particularly the funny ones. I have often dreamt and wished that I could condense those years into a few weeks. Meet the same people, travel the same roads, see the same wonderful things. I met quite a lot on Indian people and most were very nice and friendly. I got on well with my Indian drive, Sanyasi, and our unit funny man who woke me up most mornings with tea and a chapatti. There was also our Pathan officer and Indian then, who wanted me to go on leave with him up the Kyber Pass where he lived. I declined that invitation.
The Second World War began on 3rd September 1939. For the first two years I was in a reserved occupation, in charge of a workshop making glass fibre battery separators, mainly for submarines.
In the first two years of the war I was an Air-raid Warden, fire watching at the Mill. Grandma and I got married in December 1939, and as we both worked at the same place, we were able to do our fire-watching together. When the sirens went we used to go out on patrol with a stirrup pump, a bucket of water and a scoop watching for incendiary bombs. We did not have many problems, for we lived quite a distance away from the bigger towns. On only one occasion were any bombs dropped in our area. A few bombs did fall into a field at Bullace Tree Farm nearby. The farmer said one of his cows was killed. I’m not sure about that! I suppose the blackout was the biggest trouble we had to put up with. That and the shortage of beer and other things we had taken for granted.
At the place I worked at we formed a Concert Party to raise funds for the local “Forget- Me-Not” fund, which sent out parcels to all the people who were serving in the forces. After I joined up my first parcel followed me around and I was in India when it arrived. It contained a Balaclava, a thick woolly scarf and thick socks. A bit too warm for that climate!
Since the war I have been given some old gramophone records of one of the concerts the party gave. They did the show for Workers’ Playtime with Barney Colahan. I have had this put onto tape and sent copies to the ones who are still with us. Unfortunately quite a few have passed away.
I could have stayed out of the forces for the rest of the war, but in 1941 another chap and I decided not to fill in the form to continue our reserved status. We were very quickly called up, and in less that three months I was on the SS Cathay on my way to the Far East.
It was on 11th December 1941 that I joined the Forces. My army identification was T10676947 DVR H Sheard.
I was sent to a Royal Army Service Corp depot at Chesterfield. We were billeted in an old school building and had to sleep on the floor — no beds! It was very draughty and very cold. We had three horrible smelly army blankets, but no pillow. We had to use our kitbags for that, which contained our spare clothing etc. We used to wake up with bruises on the back of our heads if we rolled on to our spare boots! We had to keep our kitbags tied up, as things tended to go missing.
We spent a month “square-bashing”, listening to lectures and learning how to fire a rifle and Bren gun. We went on to a rifle range and fired five rounds each at a target. I missed the target with all five shots! The next day a farmer came to complain that one of his cows had been shot! I tried my best, but I think if I had been in the army till now I would never have made a soldier.
After a month they gave us seven days leave. I suppose that the instructors thought they had done the best they could with us. Having been in a reserved occupation, I was called up with a rather older age group and as some had been in responsible jobs, we didn’t take too kindly to some of the things we were called by one of the instructors who was rather young.
So, after our leave we were glad to move on to a driving training depot at nearby Eckington. They had a ten point system for teaching you to drive the various trucks. If you satisfied the instructor you got a point. If you didn’t, or if he was in a bad mood, you lost points. When you had got your ten points, you were allowed to take a vehicle out on your own. The first truck I took out was much bigger than any I had been in, and what I didn’t know (and nobody told me) was that it had a hand control as well as the accelerator. It nearly ran away with me until I found the lever. But I got back safely. We were at this place for about a month. The food was the worst we had all the time I was in the army. I don’t think they washed the vegetables. The only thing worth eating was the bread and jam, which fortunately was unlimited, along with porridge for breakfast. It was useful if you closed your eyes whilst eating it. We were glad to move on, but worse was to come!
The next place was an old cotton mill in Lancashire — five storeys high. It had three tier bunk beds and an escape chute in the middle of the floor. The wind from the bottom of the mill nearly blew your blankets off. Even so, you tried to get near it for there was only one toilet to each floor and that was usually overflowing. What a smell! This place was used to form us into transport units. After numerous medical inspections, about one hundred of us were moved up to Grasmere in the Lake District.
As army camps go it was very good. The officers in charge were billeted in the local hotel. We had to march to this hotel for all our meals, which were quite good. We had to take our turn “spud-bashing” and helping in the hotel so we were able to scrounge enough grub for our suppers. Bacon smelt lovely cooked on top of the hut stove.
We had to parade every morning and some of us would go out driving in the few vehicles we had been allocated. The rest of us would whitewash stones around the camp, or do drills and route marches. At one morning parade the officer in charge asked for two people who could read a plan or drawing — and what a drawing! It was a hole in the ground, six feet square and six feet deep. It had a wooden frame on top with a fly-trap built into it, and two trap doors. It was a tropical toilet. You can imagine digging a hole six feet deep in a hillside in the Lake District. We never did get down six feet, but it kept us off parades for quite some time, which was what Dave and I wanted.
In the middle of April I was given seven days leave and then, a fortnight later, we were all given seven days embarkation leave. We had been back at camp a few days when we were told all our transport had to be returned to depot in Rochdale. About twenty of us were detailed for the job. The sergeant in charge lived a few miles from me, and he gave me the wink that we were going to take a wrong road and park up for the night in Halifax. He would arrange for the rest of the lads to spend the night at the local barracks, and we were going home. He told me that he was arranging for his wife to then go up to Grasmere the following day, and that I should do the same, as we would be going abroad shortly. We left for Rochdale the next morning, after collecting the rest of the lads from Halifax. When we got to Rochdale we had a problem, as it was going to take all day to get the trucks handed over — army bull! As our wives were on their way to Grasmere, we decided that I would make my own way back, but as all the names of our party were on one movement order, this meant that I had to dodge the Military Police on the way. I was followed by two of them on the station, but I got on the train and as a rather stout lady was sitting by the window, I was able to keep out of sight. I made it back to Grasmere, met the wives and got them fixed up with somewhere to stay. We only had three days, for on the third day we were confined to camp after 9pm. So we signed at the guard hut at one end of the camp and went over the wall at the other end. We had had word that we were moving out during the night so we had to say our goodbyes, and we got back into camp by midnight. We never thought it would be four years before we saw our wives again.
We got into coaches at 3 o’clock in the morning, and the following day we arrived at Newport in South Wales. In the dock was the “S.S. CATHAY” which was to be our home for over two months. It had been a refrigerated meat ship, as wall as carrying some passengers, and had been stripped out to carry troops below deck. The section we were in had bunks down each side, with a long table and benches down the middle. One hundred of us were in this compartment. Nights were the worst. Hammocks were slung along the roof. The bunks were full. Some of us slept on the table, some on the benches and some under the table. When we had a rough sea the best places were under the table, or up in the hammocks — some of use were not very good sailors! We were not told officially, but rumours had it that there were upwards of 4,000 troops on board.
We left Newport the following night. Our next port of call was Gourock in Scotland, where we stayed for a few days. We were to form part of what was supposed to be one of the largest convoys to leave Britain. We had some mail forwarded to us while we were in Gourock. One of our chaps had a letter to say he had become a father. We had great difficulty stopping him jumping ship. The baby would be over four years old if and when he got home.
We sailed out one night and the convoy formed up north of Ireland. We were told we had destroyers on the outside of the convoy, but we never saw them. The “CATHAY” had a 6in gun on the deck. We were told that if the alarm went we had to go below deck and they put the hatch covers on. The boat would change course. We assumed it moved to the outside of the convoy. It was very scaring. Because of the numbers on the boat, we had a rota for going on deck. When we got into warmer waters we had a rota for sleeping on deck. Fresh water was a problem. We had to wash and, if we were lucky shower, in sea water. We had special soap, but you always felt sticky afterwards. We lost four people on the journey out. They were buried at sea. It was an awful experience.
The convoy sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean and then back into Freetown, West Africa for fresh water and other supplies. We had little boats come alongside, with locals selling fruit and diving for coins. We didn’t stay long and then we sailed out into the Atlantic again. Quite some time later we docked in Capetown, South Africa. We were told that we would be staying a few days, and would be allowed off the boat. I had managed to save a little money so I was able to find someone who wasn’t bothered about getting off the boat and give him some money for his pass which allowed you off the boat. So I had two days off.
When we first stood on dry land we were like someone who had had too much to drink. We wobbled all over the place. The first thing we saw were stalls selling fresh fruit. I bought the biggest bunch of grapes I could see and sat on the dockside and ate the lot.
As we got off the dockside, a lot of local people were waiting and invited us to spend the day with them. A number of us were taken to a large restaurant — and what a lunch! Then those of us who smoked were bought cigarettes. I was given sweets and chocolates. Four of us were then taken by car to a large house out of town, and the family who lived there gave us the run of the place. The first thing I asked for was the use of the bathroom. I had a lovely hot bath and my first taste of apartheid when I was offered a black servant to help me. I declined, and from then on I became aware of the way the coloured people of South Africa were treated.
On the second day off the boat, my pal and I turned down the various invitations we got and decided to make our own way about. We wanted to see as much of the place as was possible in the time we had. We were warned not to go into District Six. This was where the coloured people lived, so we took a chance and went in. It was terrible how people could live in those conditions. It is now fifty years since I saw that. How the coloured people have accepted this way of life all these years is beyond belief. We wandered around Capetown, and saw all the signs of segregation — seats in the parks, whites-only toilets, buses and numerous other things.
We were walking down the main street on the second day and I heard someone calling me. It was a chap in naval uniform. It turned out to be someone I went to school with. We had quite a natter. Unfortunately I heard later that he had gone down with his ship. It may have been one of the destroyers that were guarding the convoy.
We left Capetown after a few days and sailed up the coast to Durban. This place looked lovely from the boat, but we could only look. We then sailed across the Indian Ocean, and into Bombay harbour. We saw the “Gateway to India” which had been built when the King and Queen had visited India before the war. I was to spend many an hour by that, looking over the sea wall and wishing I could get on one of the boats and sail home. It was nearly four years before that happened, and then it was from Rangoon in Burma.
We spent a few days in Bombay. I suppose the idea was to get us acclimatised. We were then put on a train to Delhi. The journey took nearly five days — we seemed to be in sidings longer than we were travelling. I don’t think they knew what to do with us. We had been told on the boat that we were to be transport for the 44th Light Ack-Ack Regiment, but when we arrived the powers that be decided that the Indian Army would do the job. So it turned out, after that terrible journey, that we were not required! There were four other units like us. All surplus to requirement. We hoped they would ship us home. No such luck!
We stayed in Delhi for some time, living in military cantonment. We had long brick built, barrack blocks with a veranda down one side, with openings for windows, but no window frames. Through each opening were cords for the Punkahs. It was the night guard’s job to make sure the Punkah Wallahs didn’t go to sleep. The idea was to keep the air moving inside the barrack blocks.
There was a cookhouse a few yards from the end of the barrack block. We had to collect our meals, and then get them across to eat on our Charpoys (beds). The problem was the Kite Hawks. They used to swoop down and whip your meal off the plate! You didn’t mind them pinching the meat. It was water buffalo and no way could you chew it!
At the time we were there, there was a lot of rioting. The Indians were wanting independence from Britain. We used to have to march round the city with our rifles on our shoulders, and five rounds of ammunition in our pockets. We had strict orders not to load our rifles. We were subjected to quite a lot of verbal abuse, and at times, especially in the old part of the city, we would have all kinds of things thrown at us — not all sweet smelling!
The Mahatma Ghandi was arrested again and some of us were sent to Poona to help with guarding him. He was in one of the Aga Khan’s residences. We often saw him walking round the gardens, leaning on his staff, with his European friend and many others.
We had bearers — Indians who, for a few annas a week, would clean our boots and kit. We had Dhobi Wallahs, who washed and ironed our clothes. One I banned was the Nappi Wallah — the barber. He would come round early in the morning, lift your mosquito net, which you hung over your bed, and give you a shave. Apart from the fact that you woke up and saw this black face with a cut throat razor standing over you, he used to shave the whole barrack block with the same water! I soon sacked him.
It was while we were there that the seasons changed. We had arrived in the hot dry season and then came the monsoons. It rained for weeks. The first day we all ran out without our clothes on and let it wash away the prickly heat we had suffered from for weeks.
We had a few months at this camp, and off we went again. This time to a larger camp where we joined up with the other four transport units who like us were unwanted. The usual rumours went about that we were to be sent back home, but nothing came of it. After quite some time doing parades, route marches, square bashing and the old chore of whitewashing stones we were told that 200 of us were to be sent to Bombay. We were to ferry new vehicles to units all over India. This was a job I thought could be quite interesting.
The chap who slept in the next bed to me at this camp was an ammunition examiner, and didn’t drive. We thought there would be two drivers to each truck, so he asked if he could come with me. But when we got to Bombay, there were 200 trucks waiting to be moved. So I got his truck started for him and he said he would have a go. We were taking these trucks to Cawnpore (now called Kanpur). We had to climb up the Western Ghats (which were some very steep hills) to our first stop. It took us about six hours. Out of the 200 vehicles that left Bombay, only about half arrived in a fit state to carry on. Most of the lads who went on this job had had only a few hours driving on their own, and that was in England quite a while back. I think the officer in charge realised this. He got us together and told us that anyone who wanted to drop out at that stage could, and nothing would be held against them. I decided that as I had got that far I would carry on — and I was pleased I did.
We did a number of trips after this. We took vehicles to all parts of India and what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh. We went as far south as Bangalore. We returned to Bombay by train each time we had made a delivery. On one of the trips we spent a night outside the city of Agra and saw the Taj Mahal from the outside, but because of the troubles we could not go inside. I was very disappointed.
The riots didn’t seem to affect us. We were so dirty and scruffy they probably thought we were natives. In fact we walked through one village and when we got to the other side the Military Police were on guard. They were going to arrest us for being improperly dressed, but they said that if we went back to our trucks they would look the other way. On one return journey one chap bought a monkey. We had a few days off after each trip, and we slept in a big shed on the docks. This shed had a corrugated iron roof. The monkey was rather wild and some bright spark loosened the chain and all night long it ran backwards and forwards on the roof trailing a couple of yards of chain. It came down in the morning. I suppose that it was hungry. It went with us on our next trip. I had a problem with my truck and had to be towed quite some way until we got it fixed. Of course the chap who was detailed to tow me was the one with the monkey. We had only a short tow rope, and for quite some miles the monkey sat on the tailboard of the truck in front and, as we had no windscreens, it was staring at me, spitting and doing other things within a short distance of me for some time! Needless to say the monkey disappeared at the next stop.
It had been quite rough at times, but I managed to see quite a lot of India. We met a lot of people, like the Salvation Army couple who lived miles from the nearest town, who gave us a real welcome and a good meal. We left them all the spare food we had on the trucks. But again we were made redundant. It was decided to employ local Indian drivers so we were packed off to another camp.
This time it was Deolali, or as it was known “Doo-lally”. It was probably thought a suitable place for us. It was a big base camp for troops who had just come out from England and other places. It was also for units who had been up in Burma.
I wangled a job in the office as a ration clerk. It got me out of parades and “bull”. I had this job for a while, and then the corporal who was acting pay sergeant went into hospital, and I was told to put up two stripes and do his job. I had to write out the pay rolls and call out the names on pay parade. This was alright with most names, but we had a batch of officer cadets and some had two surnames. We had one who was called Bastard. Imagine an officer with a name like that. I think the officer who was doing the pay parade was waiting for me to call out this cadet’s name. When it was this chap’s turn I called out “Cadet B’stard”. Our officer smiled and said “Well done, Sheard”.
It was not a very good camp to be in. Some of the troops who had been up in Burma were, to say the least, difficult. I remember one night all the toilets were burned down. One big Geordie who was up on a charge before the O/C was being marched in by the Sergeant Major who gave him a push. This chap swung round and put his fist though the office door. If he had hit the Sergeant Major he would have put him in hospital. As the officer saw what happened, he said “Sergeant Major — you asked for that”. Geordie got off.
This job wasn’t to last long. I got a movement order. I was to keep my stripes and take 19 other chaps across India to Ranchi. One of the lads was brought out of detention to go with us. I was supposed to keep him under escort on the journey, but we soon changed that. He turned out to be very useful to us later on.
Ranchi was one of the biggest military areas; a staging post for Burma. We were to join a tank recovery unit, the 104 part of the 14th Army. It was an Indian unit with British officers and senior NCOs and an Indian officer.
We arrived late at night. The officer in charge said when we arrived “Don’t unpack. We are moving camp in the morning”. We were told to put our kit onto a truck and sleep with it. The next morning it was soon apparent why we had been posted to the unit. When the driver arrived he said “Sahib, you drive”. He told me his name was Sanyasi. He was a Tamil from southern India. The transporter was a Federal. It had ten wheels on the tractor, and sixteen on the trailer. It was an American job and had clocks, dials, gear levers and lots of other things. I hadn’t a clue what they were all for, but after a couple of hair-raising miles I suggested that I drive. Sanyasi was only too pleased. I thought that if I was to be killed I might as well do it myself. Again my luck held out and we arrived at our new camp safely.
The camp approach road was built up with paddy fields on each side. One road in and one road out, and they were quite narrow. I remember one day we had been out with our transporters moving railway lines from a depot to Asansol — a railhead for a new line they were building. We go all sorts of jobs because of the size of our vehicles. On the way back to camp, Sanyasi was driving. We were both getting used to these great things. I must have dropped off to sleep. I awoke with my head hitting the windscreen. Sanyasi had gone ff the road into the paddy field. You can imagine I was not too pleased. To make it worse our C/O was watching us come in. I plodded through the rice field, waist deep in water, expecting to be told off. Luckily this officer was like me a civilian in uniform. He took me to his tent and gave me a drink, and said to leave the truck till the next morning. It would be good training for the lads to get it out.
He wasn’t too happy one night when we decided to have some fun. At night bullock carts used to travel in convoys along the main road. The front driver would be awake, but most of the others would be asleep. The bullocks would plod on behind each other so we waited till one or two had passed the camp entrance, and then we turned the next cart up the camp road. There was no way of turning round so they had to go through the camp and out on the other road. It was a good thing he never found out who was responsible.
It was at this camp that we had those tropical toilets that we had tried to dig at Grasmere, and it was here that one of our lads lost his wallet down the trapdoor. He was one who was very careful with his money, but in spite of spending three days “fishing” he never recovered it. What a smelly job! I remember another chap running out with his pants down. He had seen a snake down the pit. We had to get rid of that quickly — the snake I mean.
This officer of ours was a mining engineer in civilian life and as coal was rather short in India, he was to return to his former job. We were sorry when he did leave us. He was one of the best.
We used to take turns to cook for the British lads. One day the chap who was on duty had made a bread and butter pudding. We had an oven made out of an oil drum and he had taken the lid off to let it cool. He looked round and saw this cow eating it. As you know cows are sacred in India. He was rather annoyed so he threw a rather large stone at it. Unfortunately it dropped dead. All the Indians in the unit went on strike. We had to get rid of the cow’s body right away. Our officer was able to talk the Indians back to work.
I had two leaves while I was stationed at Ranchi. The first was to Karachi. It was quite an experience crossing the Sind Desert. We went by train, via Lahore and Rawalpindi. It was really worth seeing. The second leave I remember most. This was to Darjeeling via Calcutta. We had been given 21 days. Three of us went. We travelled by normal rail to Silguri, and then up to Darjeeling by the most wonderful railway in the world —“the Darjeeling Himalayan”. It took us three days from our camp to the rest camp at Darjeeling. The officer in charge of the rest camp looked at our passes and said “Right, you are here for 21 days. Make the most of it”. The scenery was fantastic. We only saw “Chomo Lungma” — Everest once. It was usually covered in mist. The second highest mountain Kanchenjunga, we saw most days. My pals were not eager to get out of bed on a morning, so I usually went for a walk into the hills each morning. This was the place where the Ghurkha soldiers lived. I rarely walked on my own. One or more of these chaps, some retired, some on leave, would join me. With my bit of Urdu and their bit of English we managed quite well. I had been having lessons in Urdu with a Munchi language teacher. The main reason for this was that one day our officer heard me swearing at one of the Indians because he couldn’t understand what I was saying. He gave me a telling off and said that it would be a good idea if some of us tried to learn a little Urdu. On our walks the views, the flowers and shrubs were really beautiful, especially the rhododendrons,
The three weeks went too fast. Soon we had to catch that unique train down the mountain and then to Calcutta. We went to see the movement officer in the station to see what time the train to Ranchi was. This, we were told, was in three days time. We had no money left, so we were sent to an Army unit that was in the area. They fixed us up with money, food and a bed. We were away from our unit about a month. We expected all kinds of trouble when we reported back, but our officer was very good. He just hoped we had had a good leave and that was that.
The officer who had been with us all the time we were in Ranchi told us that he was leaving us to go back to the coal mines. We were sorry to lose him. He warned us that we would soon be moving up to Burma. We decided to a have a party and late Christmas dinner. We went and got a pig. They lived more or less wild round the villages. Till we were ready for it we put it down one of the ammunition pits with a net over the top. We had a chap who was a butcher in civvy street, but what a game we had getting it out of the pit. It was really wild by then. The pork was quite good though.
The next officer we had told us that he was only going with us as far as the river Chindwin. I think he came for the ride. What he didn’t tell us was that he suffered from the DTs — Delirium Tremens. When we got our rum rations, which we were allowed when we crossed the border into Burma, and some more booze we had scrounged, we had a boozing session. We hadn’t had many drinks when this officer started seeing blue devils. He ran out of the tent and was firing his revolver into the trees. We waited till it was empty, then we got him to bed. The revolver went missing.
We lost our Indian barber about this time. He picked up what he thought was a fountain pen. It turned out to be a booby trap and it blew his handoff. We had rather long hair by the time we arrived in Rangoon.
We had to get our own tea and cook whatever needed cooking. Sometimes we would get fish by throwing hand grenades into the rivers. The fish would float to the top. We had sand stoves which were square tins filled with sand into which we would stir diesel oil. We then put a little petrol on the top, stood back and threw a light in. One day I left Sanyasi to make the tea. He must have got too near when he lit it. He had a moustache and a small beard when I left, but none when I came back. The tea was ready though.
We already had one section (about a third of the men and recovery trucks) working on the road that goes from Burma to Siam (now called Thailand). Our tank transporters were now too small to carry the heavier tanks we were getting. We were now made into a heavy transport unit.
Our first loads were rather large pre-fab boat parts, which we had to take to the River Chindwin, where they were built into boats to take men and troops down this very big river. It was a terrible journey up over the mountains. At the top of one was “Hari Kari Corner”. You could look down hundreds of feet and see what was left of quite a lot of trucks. We went through Imphal and Kohima, the scene of some grim battles.
We did several trips along these roads, and then we were given a load which had to be taken right through to Rangoon. We were given an escort of East Africans. They were more than useful. We had instructions to stop only at certain places. If we broke down we had to run our trucks off the road and scrounge a lift to the next point. We did make one stop by the road. Our other lads were working on “Mauchi Road”. We got in touch with them and they had some mail for us. It was months since we had had any letters from home. I had about 40 letters. Grandma used to number each letter, and quite a few were missing in between. One letter said it was to be hoped that I wasn’t taking it too badly. As I had no idea what it was, this was very worrying. It turned out that my sister had died.
We made it to Rangoon without too much trouble. It was now in allied hands. We had a short rest and before long we were told we would be loading our trucks into ships for what we guessed could be Singapore. But before we had done this we were told about the atomic bombs, and before long the War was over.
There was plenty to do in Rangoon. The most wonderful sight was the Shwedagon Pagoda, with its pure gold roof. We were taken around this fantastic place by the wife of a government official. She was very knowledgeable about the different Buddhas and what they represented. We had to walk round in our bare feet.
One of the things we did while in Rangoon was to meet the lads who had been prisoners of war and had had a terrible time.
The officer we had in charge at that time was not very popular with the British lads in the unit.
It wasn’t long before we were being transferred to British units. I went to a petrol depot on Monkey Point, where I drove a petrol tanker until we embarked for home on the “DURBAN CASTLE”. It didn’t take quite so long this time. We came back through the Suez Canal and docked at Southampton. I had 36 days leave and then did a few months in various parts on England before being demobbed.
I had been abroad for nearly four years, but I had been very lucky and came back fit and well. I often think of all the lads who did not come back. I remember that memorial that was erected at Kohima which said:
When you go home tell them of us and say
That for their tomorrows we gave our today
In late 1941 I was on the SS Cathay, part of a large convoy which sailed out of Britain to what to us was an unknown destination. After over two months at sea we arrived in Bombay, now known as Mumbai.
I spent the next, just short of four years in India and Burma and came home from Rangoon.
In recent years I have become very interested in local history and was given a booklet called “Gomersal Scenes of Yesterday No. 2”. I was very keen to get hold of No.1. I rang the secretary at the school that had produced this booklet, which is made up of old photographs of Gomersal, most of which I can relate to. She promised to send me a copy. During our conversation she asked me if I remembered Little Gomersal. I told her that I had spent my early life living there. She then asked if I remembered her father-in-law Ernest. I told here I did and also his younger brother Harold, who I had last met walking up the main street (Adelaide Street) in Capetown, South Africa. He was in a sailor’s uniform and like us had stopped in Capetown for two days. We were told that half of the people on the Cathay would be allowed off the boat the first day, and the rest the second day. I did a little bribery and got off both days. When I came home after the war I made enquiries about Harold who had been a school pal. He had been torpedoed and he had not survived. His ship was probably one of the escorts of the convoy.
As I said in Grandad’s War at the end of the war we came home on the Durban Castle. A much quicker journey than when we went out on the SS Cathay.
When we got through to Rangoon we were put in a camp for Documentation ready for coming home. We had lads with us who had been P.O.W.s in Japanese hands and when we boarded the Durban Castle they were all put into Sick Bay. Unfortunately not all of them made it home, but their loved ones were able to have a funeral and say their goodbyes, not like the four lads who died on the Cathay who were buried at sea. I shall always remember those funerals for the rest of my life.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.