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15 October 2014
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Repatriation in 1942

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Jean Margaret Bennett (nee Willey), Joseph Willey, Ethel Mary Willey, Neville James Willey, Caroline Lord and Arthur Lord
Location of story: 
At sea and in Bristol
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A5171339
Contributed on: 
18 August 2005

My Father joined the Army as a boy in 1923, in the Royal Artillery. My Mother, brother and I went to India to join him in 1938, going first to Northern India and then to Mhow in Central India where we were in 1942, when my Father was posted as Missing in Action at El Alamein. At the same time it was thought that Japan would invade India, and as many families as possible were being sent home to England. My Father was still missing when we started our journey home.

We went by sea to Cape Town, South Africa, stopping in Durban and Port Elizabeth on the way. We stayed in Cape Town for three weeks. At that time, you sailed from Cape Town either in convoy or by a single fast ship. Can you imagine my Mother's thoughts when told that we were sailing on a single fast ship? I think that she was terrified, being on her own and responsible for two eight year old children (we were twins).

We boarded the ship Otranto together with other families and 4000 Italian prisoners of war. The stewards told us that our egg and bacon breakfast was our week or month’s ration in England, and we did not understand what they meant! We played Lotto with the sailors, and listened to the Italians singing beautifully each night. We stopped outside Freetown but were not allowed ashore. We got safely through "U Boat Alley", but unfortunately some people did not. We sighted a lifeboat one day and stopped, although due to the risk of a U Boat sitting under the lifeboat waiting to torpedo any ship that stopped, we should not have done. There was absolute silence on the ship as we all expected to be blown up. We did save about half the people in the lifeboat although they were in a bad way, and the rest were already dead.

On reaching Liverpool, we went to live with my grandparents in Bristol, as accommodation was very short. There was a great contrast between living in a hot climate in India and wartime England, and with the accommodation, food and schools. My mother and I felt the cold dreadfully. My brother and I were not bothered by "Sweet rationing" as we had not had sweets in India!

My Father was one of the last Prisoners of war to be liberated, he had lost a lot of weight whilst in captivity. He never talked to us about his time as a Prisoner of War in Italy and then in Germany. I would like to say how greatly I admire and thank the Sailors who risked their lives to keep all ships at sea during the war.

This story was entered on the People’s War website by Charlie Sever on behalf of Jean Bennett. Jean fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

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