- Contributed by
- Brian Wilkinson
- People in story:
- Frank Wilkinson
- Location of story:
- Normanton, Europe and Far East
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 March 2005
WW II itinerary of 14701281 (Wilkinson, Frank) — Part 2
(Continued from Part 1)
We slowed down as we approached Liege and Maastrich. In Liege some of the road had ‘wooden setts’ which of course got dislodged by tanks and half-tracks. The locals were standing by filling up with reclaimed blocks and other rubble to help keep us on the move. However, we were ‘nowhere’ when the message came to stand fast until further notice. No setting up camp, but remaining alert for next orders. During the long fast move previously referred to we had survived on ‘1 tin of Bully for 4’, army biscuits and compo tea. Now we were dependent on the ingenuity of the cooks and they came up with a treat. We each got a whole pilchard, dipped in batter and fried. Eaten in our fingers they were lovely, then followed with hot compo tea!
We were in a village called Hierlen Heid and this was the onset of the Ardennes ‘Putsch’. The weather changed, the frosts and snow came and our vehicles froze. The half-tracks were locked solid in what had been soft ground. We were stuck! We were here for Xmas Day and were invited in by locals. They had an 8yr old girl, and a piano. One of our chaps was good on the mouth organ. Between them and us we had a pleasant time. ‘Stille Nacht’ was known to us all. The little girl sang one of her carols and after a while I managed to play it on the piano. She was pleased.
About this time I became due for 7 days leave, so I had to pack all my kit and start the journey home. This was just after the Dam Busters Raid and many roads were flooded, frozen and then began thawing. By lorry DUKW (boat vehicle) eventually to a train (‘square’ wheels, wooden seats) to Calais. Then by one of the famous Dover/Calais boats (‘Daffodil’ I think). Train to London and home. It was early March and to see the trees, the fields and mainly undamaged property was a joy. 7 days leave at home, my first privilege leave and listening to the news every night hoping for a bad weather delay and extension (at this time I was at Battalion level).
It did not happen and it took a few days to reach my unit to find that I had been ‘posted’ and was due 14 days disembarkation and 14 days embarkation leave. So off I set off home again and it looked like taking up cudgels with the Japs.
Another lone train journey home and passing through Louvain saw literally dozens of railway engines looking like colanders waiting in the sidings.
Spent a few days in Bruges under garrison rules regarding dress and parades. Not enjoyable but no doubt necessary. Then to Ostend and boarded the ‘Ulster Monarch’ to London I think. We seemed to be playing games turning this way and that before we really got under weigh. We had been negotiating our minefields. Soon after we really got moving we were accompanied by a submarine chaser, which warned us of a sub. We were sent down below and told not to be scared by the explosions which would be our escorts depth charges.
Rest of trip uneventful. By train to Thirsk arriving soon after daylight just in time to see a bombing mission returning home. Mostly limping and obviously seriously damaged.
Documentation at Thirsk, then train home.
A whole month so soon after 7 days.
Recall papers came to report to Armitage Bridge, Huddersfield — an old mill and back to 3 tier bunk beds. It was in walking distance of my brother Arthur’s home.
Soon sent by train to somewhere. Train unlit, blinds drawn but peeps suggested unknown landscape, probably Scotland. It proved to be Greenock and we boarded the S.S.’Moultan’. We were immediately put on guard duty. We, L/Cpl of 1st shift and I, had to place 8 or so men at queer sounding posts on queer sounding decks and alleyways of an unknown ship. At the end of the first 2 hours on I hadn’t found all the posts but returned back to Guardroom. Nobody seemed unduly worried, probably due to sea-sickness. We were well out to sea by the time Guard Duty finished. Official address now S.E.A.C.
I began to enjoy the voyage and looked forward to Gibraltar and the Med’. We passed during darkness and saw nothing.
May 8th (VE Day) we had muted celebrations as our new war was yet to start. One delight was the ships no longer needed to black out and overall lighting was enjoyed.
A few days in the Med’ we met the ‘Lafayette’ all ablaze with lights, many coloured. She looked lovely. Memorable points of the Med’ —
- many days oily calm,
- clarity of sea, all shades of green and blue according to the sky,
- turtles, 2ft across, surface swimming with no land in sight, dolphins and maybe some form of shark riding the ships bow wave,
- steadily reducing twilight, finally light to dark in say 10 minutes.
- sleeping on deck in our bed rolls most nights, but had to be quick in morning when Lascars swabbed deck. They didn’t wait.
- wash in sea water with sea soap, horrible stuff.
- toilets, trough athwart ship below decks. Water pumped these at fair speed unless we had a roll on and it backed up and washed us.
- no duties but I found watching sea, sky, stars, birds and fish quite interesting.
Up to now we were in Khaki but on reaching Port Said we had to change into KD with pith helmets. In Port Said we were amongst all the then well-known liners turned troop carriers. Those coming back from the far east jeering and shouting “Get your knees brown” They were going home.
Journey through Suez Canal very very slow, maximum 5 knots, and unreal. Traffic flow one way only, decided by traffic control. You could not see the water from the ships rail. Land restricted, sand and desert all desolate save for the occasional Arab in his “biernoose” and leading his laden camel.
Eventually came to the Bitter Lakes which seemed to be choked with battered and apparently scuttled Italian Naval Craft. Moving through the Red Sea, heat was unbearable but one afternoon we were sent to bunks, told to open all ventilators and the ship’s captain was going to alter course and sail into the breeze for an hour. It was a pleasant relief. We saw the occasional dhow, the occasional whale-spouts and lots of flying fish, many of which landed on deck and were taken to the galley. Across the Indian Ocean to Bombay.
Disembarked on the quay straight on to a train for a 5 day journey to Mhow, a garrison town in Central India. Very good but Spartan quarters and fairly rigid discipline. charpoy beds, wooden frame, coir mesh mattress and mosquito nets. Soon had a typhoid scare, blamed on local milk deliveries. Everything, including beds had to be sterilised by immersion in boiling water and we were given yet another set of jabs. In Mhow the transport was by coolie-pulled rickshaw or pony-drawn chaires.
At Mhow we lost our rifles for good; presumably they went to our troops in Burma. In Europe our rifles had been replaced by sten guns, which were withdrawn when we left Europe and we were re-issued with rifles to take out East.. After more checks on documentation we were on the train again, this time for 7 days, moving east to Comilla.
Six men to a compartment, no corridors, seats at normal level were perforated plywood, then above at either side two hinged wooden slatted shelves held horizontal by metal chains. We had to sleep on these, within protection of our mosquito nets suspended from built in hooks. Air conditioning provided by a block of ice cradled in cork dust in strong hessian covers. We stuck our water bottles round the ice and hoped for the best. The moist cork dust was welcomed by the travelling cockroaches. The train seemed to pull up anywhere and nowhere. Once one of the footplate crew left the train and went off, by a narrow track to his village home. If the train pulled up at a station, we dashed to the water pump for a wash. The engine driver gave the char-wallah a quick squirt of hot water to brew his tea which he then sold to us at 2 annas a cup. It was not unusual to see a bloke half-naked or half-shaved dashing back on to the train. It seemed there were no services as such. We had to shut the windows at dusk because of the mosquitos but the windows after dark attracted fire-flies, the light in their abdomens pulsating incessantly.
At Comilla we were apparently not expected but eventually after dark we were fetched by local army transport and taken to an enclosure that had single storey ‘bashas’, dry grass and bamboo huts. There we had no lights and we were told to kip down for the night but mosquito nets must be used. We did our best but when daylight came we were out like a shot. The area was alive with cockroaches, other beetles and vermin. Later that morning trucks took our kit and we were marched to our allotted camp. It was on this march that I de-hydrated, went green and virtually passed out. 2 water bottles full and a half-hour later I came round and was able to complete the journey. Comilla transit camp was a sort of herringbone valley and we were in one of the side ribs.
Better bashas, one water tap, ‘chuggles’ (canvas bottles) limited time for use. Monsoons due to break. We were issued with monsoon capes and looked forward to the rain. At first sign of rain, stripped off stood on grass and started applying soap. Rain stopped, soap stuck and that was that. This happened a few times but rains duly came and cooling baths were enjoyed.
Cracked my false teeth upper plate, had to report sick to receive attention. Sick Room about 1.5 miles up main valley and warned of snakes. Left MI Room, storm broke, gulleys either side of main valley became rivers and when I reached our side shoot the two plank wooden foot bridge couldn’t be seen so, with wrist watch held high, I had to plunge and wade for home. Don’t recall any snakes.
Shared basha with 3 others, 2 Infantry Men and 1 other Signals. There was talk of being flown to Burma or Hong Kong but eventually attached to Signals Office in Comilla. There until VJ Day. Again muted but heartfelt relief. Memories —
- flying foxes (large fruit bats),
- black velvety nights.
- no road lighting. 4 of us walking occupying width of metalled road, only noise our voices and army boots. Turned to my R to emphasise a point and realised a long ladder divided us. 2 bare foot natives in a hurry had overtaken our stroll and in due course passed us. A similar instance we heard the approaching slap of bare, hurried feet. This time bamboo pole and dead body suspended by hands and ankles being taken to funeral platform. To be cleared by vultures, pi dogs etc.
Next by train to Chittagong to await next move. Similar accommodation well outside the town itself. Visited occasionally for concerts and Sunday Services. 2 mile walk through Tiger Pass, a metalled road but rife with tales of tiger attacks. We never saw one, but pi dogs eyes glowed — you were never sure.
Chittagong uneventful but one of our officers taught us Malayan but again not a lot of progress. Our fault not his. News came, we were going to Singapore. Marched down to the docks, boarded a little steel boat called the ‘Egra’ and told keep fully dressed, boots and all because we were going through the Strait of Malacca which were heavily mined. Egra’s life expectancy if struck 2 mins. Protest we should float better without boots. Yes but bare feet attracted sharks which were plentiful. Ships captain cheerful character, toothless pipe sucker somewhat like Popeye. Saw plenty of sharks which seemed to enjoy riding the boats bow waves. Arrived Singapore and a group of us taken into camp at Johor Bahru. Put under canvas, had to dig our own monsoon trenches and make them deep and adequate. Hot, hard work, no water because Japs had poisoned the supply so no chance of a drink until the water truck came the following day. However, we were each issued with a can of Pilsner which I didn’t like. I filled my mouth, swilled it around and swallowed and gave the rest to my digging companion who didn’t waste it. In an evening, as often as we could, we went over the causeway to a BOR’s club, ordered a large tomato juice, had it put in the fridge and then later claimed it ‘ice-cold’, lovely.
Whole unit, Officers’ Mess and phone exchange all under canvas and so were the lavatories and ablutions. Thunderstorm every day at 10.30 a.m. and a few extras thrown in.
Under the showers, uneasy. Using the phone risky with a nasty clout possible. Not a bad time really. Most of the Officers ex Tea Planters and usually colourful characters.
Soon move to a new base at Selerang barracks. The base swarming with Japs who saluted, bowed and scraped so much it was sickening. I didn’t like it but I felt bound to acknowledge the salute. I was glad when they were cleared off.
Atmosphere hot, sticky and debilitating. Endless tea with pools of perspiration where elbows rested on the table.
- 10.30 a.m. storms with torrential rain.
- monsoon trenches (open) instead of our type drains. Trenches on main roads about 6 to 10ins. wide and about 8ft deep. After 10 mins they are surging and lapping over.
- lightning displays — standing at barriers in the harbour area, sheet and fork lightning in all directions incessant but only faint rumbles of thunder.
- lovely formal gardens. Interesting roadside ornamental trees, striking blossoms.
- busy streets, tri-shaws, rickshaws, all nationalities in descending numbers Chinese, Indians, Malays and mixtures.
- Orchard Street Methodist Church, American Minister (Bishop Schumaker), English padre Rev. Jack Christian - singing good, especially Chinese females — bell-like tones.Played piano occasionally for morning service and less frequently in forces singsong after evening service. First communion service there impressive with united nations kneeling at each serving.
Less attractive —
- Chinese superiority nastily evident. Chinese bus driver would drive away as Indian tried to mount steps. Not unusual to see driver grinning and glancing at Indian Scraping his bare feet on the road but too scared to let go.
- Female offers of services waiting in trishaws.
- Mosquitos at night.
After evening service we’d sometimes give the ‘sing-song’ a miss to attend the Orchestral Concert in the Main Hall. Conductor George Chisholme and always being late arrivals we were packed in close to the platform. Visiting notoriety’s included Bombay Sappers and Miners Band and the Welsh National Opera.
All the time in Singapore we were impatiently waiting our Demob Groups and return home. Eventually it came and we moved into Neesoon Transit Camp. It was a shambles but cheerfully borne because of home prospects. (I realise now I have said nothing of the very skilled craftsmen working in the open outside their little workshops, the street sellers of Bananas, the dried fish stalls, sundried, semi-transparent, not much smell and hung on lines like ‘smalls’. Purchasers would take it in hand and eat it dry.)
Neesoon — very dilapidated area probably where our prisoners were held. We were instructed to ensure the cleanness of our underclothing before we were taken aboard. The one indelible recollection is seeing dozens of naked men on their hands and knees hand scrubbing their whites on the concrete floor. As they scrubbed their bits and pieces swing. Terrible! Just to brush your teeth, in the mouth or detachable, you must strip off because the shower jets were about 7ft high and without spray nozzles. With jabs etc., brought up to date we were taken aboard the ‘Georgic’.
Voyage enjoyable and interesting accommodation much better than the ‘Moultan’. Up earlier each day, took mug for a pint of hot fresh tea and with the usual cigarette watched the elements, sunrise, stars fade, seas change, birds, fish large and small. Then down to mess deck for breakfast, having washed and shaved. Ship’s progress and average speed charted each day but it never seemed fast enough. Stopped at Bombay to paint ship. This took 5 days, one extra because of a cyclone. Everyone had to remain below decks and all mooring ropes were doubled. We felt very safe but when we were allowed on deck debris of small craft, deck cargoes and more sinister sights floated by. Were allowed to go into Bombay but I was troubled with a septic foot. Visited MI Room and said I’d been using Dettol only to be berated for sealing the pus in. Leave it alone and wait for it to clear up west of Suez (which is what happened).
Eventually left Bombay, Red Sea, with ships ventilation much more bearable. Pestered with little boat traders, many who managed to climb on board at Aden when we took on water, at Suez as we waited our turn to enter the canal and at Port Said where a few hours shore leave was allowed. I didn’t leave, neither did I waste my scanty funds, having bought what I could in Singapore.
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