- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. Ward
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 February 2004
When I was asked in 1942 how I viewed the possibility of spending the rest of the war in an hotel on the seafront in Bournemouth, an opportunity many would consider way beyond their wildest dreams, my immediate reaction was panic, and a desperate attempt to sabotage any such notion by saying they could not have made a more unsuitable choice. Also, pointing out how important it was for the successful outcome of the war for me to remain in London, at my very important Air Ministry job. All this was to no avail and I was informed I had to go there anyway and ordered to proceed forthwith. On that day, a day I thought would go down forever in infamy, I duly arrived at Bournemouth’s Central Station. I would not like to be thought of as an ungrateful wretch by the good people of Bournemouth for spurning their delightful town, especially with my family connections. So, putting on a brave face, and resigned to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I approach the railway information authorities at the Central Station and enquired where I would find the flying training command hotel with the link trainer unit. I was met with a puzzled frown and told I must have come to the wrong place, there was no flying training school in Bournemouth. There was an airfield not far away and flying boats at Poole. However, I insisted it had to be in Bournemouth and the machines didn’t actually fly, only the impression was there with cyclorama pictures all around giving the illusion of flying. All this was obviously too much and I was given instructions how to get to the orderly room of the RAF authorities in Bath Hill flats. They were equally unsure and said there were seventy hotels occupied by service personnel and had only a vague idea what a link trainer was, or where I might go to look for one, but said I could go to an hotel, the White Heritage, where I could find a bed for a few days when they would try to find out some information for me. I was told the Canadian YMCA was nearby, their equivalent of the NAAFI, and I could eat at the Beach café, the Hotel Metropole or the Grand Hotel. The temperature seemed to slightly warm, as having found a bedroom at the Hermitage, I came downstairs to the lounge, which seemed normal enough, except that there were quite a few young girls sitting around. One of them came up to me and enquired sweetly and prettily where I hailed from. I replied “Leamington Spa”. “That’s in Ontario isn’t it?” she said. I replied “No, it is in Warwickshire, near Coventry”. My temporary enthusiasm for Bournemouth distinctly cooled when the young lady, after consulting an old battleaxe, who seemed to be in charge, returned to tell me they were the Anglo-Canadian Friendship Society girls, anxious to show a friendly face to our cousins from overseas, and not for the likes of me to chat up. This was a shattering blow to my ego, suffering as I was from the mistaken view that I was indispensable in my previous employment. However, after purchasing a copy of the Bournemouth Echo and visiting most of the pubs within spitting distance of the Hermitage, I noted there seemed to be a multitude of dance halls, servicemen’s’ canteens and opportunities to join in the social life, enjoyed by the good people of Bournemouth. So, things may not turn out to be as miserable as I had first thought.
Returning to the orderly room, some forty eight hours later, seeking news of my fate, I was told the riddle had been solved. My destination should have been the East Cliffe Court Hotel, who it seems were expecting me. On duly presenting myself there I met the officer who was to be in charge, who seemed a most agreeable gentleman and discovered the link trainer school was to be the other side of Grove Road at the Heathlands Hotel.
Work was proceeding apace with the installation of machines. The ground floor was allocated to the school with two bedrooms, bathrooms, an office, lecture room and workshop, entirely separate from the upstairs floors, which were occupied mostly be Empire Air Training Scheme servicemen, who had been trained in Canada and shipped from Halifax Nova-Scotia to Scotland, via the Queen Elizabeth, then by train to Bournemouth to various hotels. Everyone in Bournemouth seemed to know all about this except those whose job it was to know. Not an unusual situation in the armed forces.
However, the school was up and running in a couple of weeks, and we were ready to accept our first pupils. The establishment consisted on the Commanding Officer, a Flight Lieutenant, obviously a man of discernment and excellent judge of character, a gentleman and a scholar, especially so as when we first met, he said he was glad I had at last turned up as he had asked the Air Ministry to send the most experienced and competent person for the post available, as he would need all the help he could get. Also, my previous CO had been in touch with him and said he was reluctant to let me go from London, but felt his need was the greater.
This all removed a dark cloud from my horizon as I was under the impression I had been banished to the wilds of darkest Bournemouth from the lights of London, for some entirely imagined misdeed or other. The rest of the staff consisted of a Pilot Officer, to look after the clerical side, who was newly qualified and a WAAF girl secretary. There was also ten newly arrived Link Trainer Instructors from Canada. I was responsible for the grand total of five staff, two whose job it was to keep the ground floor neat and tidy, one was a champion table tennis player, who was much in demand, to demonstrate his prowess at that. The floor did not need much cleaning anyway. The other was a Canadian named Benny. He had been a croupier in a top class gambling joint in Montreal, he informed us. He was a key player in many ways, but at times profoundly religious and soon got involved in their many and various activities in Bournemouth with the added bonus that we at the Heathlands were also invited to attend. The only thing we were concerned about with Benny was his deeply held religious convictions. It was always some highly significant religious ceremony, which nobody else had ever heard of, which would sadly prevent him coming into work next day. Benny was the uncrowned king of the poker game, especially when he called dealers choice.
Now playing poker is all about psychology and was played in the oak panelled room somewhere in the centre of the Heathlands Hotel. The room had the advantage of being able to be locked from the inside. This was not to deter surprise visits from the Commanding Officer, rather to help his powers of concentration, because he was a major player. When our English CO left and a Canadian one took over, the Canadians considered rank of little significance and officers and other ranks played poker happily together. It was a game that was important.
Most people when playing poker, if it’s their turn to deal out the cards, say “straight deal or five card stud” with a nod of the head, which means you get five cards each, face down, then start to place your bets, which is about as much as most people can cope with. Now Benny, when it was his turn to deal, used the whole range of variations by watching everyone’s expressions and then deciding. The CO fancied he was a bit of a card shar and Benny had to make sure he didn’t lose too much or he was inclined to get a bit grumpy. The different variations rather confused the CO, who was used to playing five card stud. Benny, when he was dealing, might call dealer’s choice, and it could be seven toed Peter or Ace in the hole wild or Jack’s or better to roll, anything. All these variations meant different ways of counting the score, not always easy in a fast moving game. Some of these card games lasted from 7.00 pm to 6.00 am the next morning.
The two remaining members of the team were both married with different aims and ambitions, who naturally wanted to find accommodation in Bournemouth for their wives, and live out with them. Failing that, the alternative was how to make seven days home leave, which everyone had each three months, into fourteen days. This was accomplished in a variety of ways. You timed your weeks leave with your weekend off for that month and didn’t get back for an extra forty eight hours, as you were due for a weekend off in the next month. Also, we were likely to get notification of plague, nettle-rash, sore throat, or an outbreak of galloping hydrophobia, which meant all travel between Bournemouth and the West Midlands, where they came from, was cut off. These were usually signed by dubious Vicars, Scout Masters or Doctors but were more likely to be pub or darts teams team managers, even wives or girl friends. Nobody bothered to check as the machines were all the latest model, brand new and gave very little trouble. Nobody bothered to check as the machines were all the latest model, brand new and gave very little trouble. Nobody ever fell out, we were all a happy band of pilgrims.
The problem in the services was if you were a regular member, you usually had good training in a profession you had chosen. The same applied to the volunteer reserve. Usually they came from a civilian version of the service trade. Now the procedure of the conscripted men was when you join they asked what is your trade in civilian life. If you say batcher or baker, they would say, “what a pity, there is an urgent need of candlestick makers today”. If on the other hand you happened to have been one of a dying breed of candlestick makers “what a pity you were not here yesterday, we needed a candlestick maker”. The only course open to you today, is butcher or baker. I’m not saying this was deliberate, just typical.
One of the main attractions for me, in wartime Bournemouth, was that I lived very near to the library in the Lansdowne, more especially the reference department, approached up the iron staircase to the first floor. Having always been an enthusiastic reader of non-fiction my favourite subjects being history, biographies, travel and politics, of which there was, and hopefully still is, a wide selection available for those interested in trying to make sense of wars in general, and the one we were involved in particular.
There was also another attraction, the building was also used as a college for girls, who sometimes stayed behind in the reference department, continuing their studies. Several times I was approached and asked if I would like to come to tea on Sunday. For some reason it was assumed by the young ladies of Bournemouth that if you wore a blue uniform you must be a Canadian, which was very largely true, at the time, but not completely. It appeared most girls liked to have a trophy serviceman as a boyfriend, during a war, preferably a foreign one. This was certainly true of my hometown of Royal Leamington Spa, when on one of my first visits, after the outbreak of the war, the town seemed to have been taken over by Belgian and Czechoslovakian soldiers and Polish airmen. This, coupled with the fact that their uniforms were very much smarter than our soldiers’ battledress, and they were substantially better paid.
An interesting aspect of life, when you are dealing with large numbers of people of various nationalities and beliefs, is that you have the opportunity to discuss with them, and they with you, their likes and dislikes, their requirements and aspirations, and overall impressions of England. This is a useful exercise in achieving fruitful community relations harmony. As far as the Heathlands Hotel was concerned, the upstairs bedrooms were nothing to do with me, or me with them, in fact, more often than not the upstairs lot were nothing to do with the downstairs lot either. They did not have the former hotel furnishings. They had been put in store. Merely a bedside cabinet, metal locker and the standard service bed. There was a hot and cold basin in every bedroom, toilet and bathroom on every corridor, always with piping hot water, goodness knows who was responsible for that. Also very effective central heating, when required. There was also a room at the top of the stairs set aside as a sort of communal room. Someone had told them that two or three ought to stay there at all times to prevent intruders, as the front door was always open, but I kept the downstairs rooms locked as someone may have gone in and damaged one of the machines, and it would have been my responsibility to repair it.
The procedure at all the seventy hotels in Bournemouth, I believe, followed the same pattern, rather like the present day holidaying abroad tours, where you are given a programme of events where to be in certain places at certain times. In their instructions, given to Heathlands’ residents, they were told that in the event of an emergency, there is always an officer of the day at the Royal Bath Hotel, the Officers’ Mess, the East Cliffe Court Hotel, or perhaps the chaps downstairs, who lived there all the time might be able to help.
Fortunately there were very few occasions when our assistance was urgently required. The first time it became necessary to wake us from our slumber with a hammering on the door at 2 o’clock in the morning was when a young lad, I think he was nineteen, had successfully negotiated himself from Vancouver to undergo training, then on to Halifax, across the Atlantic to Scotland, and by train to Bournemouth, and by lorry to the Heathlands. Unfortunately, in his hurry to get off the lorry before the tailboard was down, they probably couldn’t see how to open it in the dark, he jumped over it, in so doing catching his hand in the hinge, which then took his weight, nearly tearing it off, a bloody mess. We could only try to stop the bleeding and send him to hospital, where I think it was sewn back on. I believe he did finish his pilot’s course after all. Why are boys not allowed to cry like girls? Instead they would rather bite their tongue through, when they desperately needed their Mum are hurting like hell, frightened and thinking they are going to die.
Perhaps it is better to concentrate more on light-hearted calls for help. For instance, I never knew how important it was for Canadians to have a crease in their trousers. In my RAF days if anything of that nature was required there was nothing more to do than stuffing them under the mattress for a night, not so with the Canadians. I met a deputation who said they were desperate to get a smoothing iron. I said, if you mean an electric iron, things like that are not often available in the shops, but I will try to find one in the second-hand shops of which Bournemouth, at that time, seemed to have plenty. They were overjoyed at this, especially when I said we had one they could borrow. The queued for hours for the privilege to use it.
Another thing I was frequently asked to comment on was the relationship with the opposite sex. They found our dancing a little difficult to cope with, especially the new arrivals. I told them they would soon pick it up. They did think the Bournemouth girls were a little forward. One said that when you put your arm around them and gave them a friendly squeeze, it seemed to start their engines running and they went into auto-pilot and seemed to throw caution to the wind.
I said I hadn’t myself come across that situation too much, but I explained Bournemouth was one of the few seaside towns open to the public and girls came in droves from all over the country as word had got around that Canadians and Americans were all fabulously rich and had nylons and lipsticks and other things girls need, readily available. Genuine Bournemouth girls are much more refined.
Shortly after offering the profound advice, which I realised at the time was somewhat apocryphal, I met a young lady who came from London, but was living in Bournemouth and working for a financial company, which had moved there to escape the bombing. What was unusual about this girl was that she offered me a proposition, where as, then it was reckoned to be up to the male species to suggest a proposal of this kind. I think the dawn of women’s’ liberation started in Bournemouth in 1943. The background to this encounter was that in wartime Bournemouth where there was plethora of dance halls, large and small, from the large ones at the Pavilion, Town Hall and those at Parkstone and Boscombe. There were also many small dances held in church halls, where it seemed incumbent on the clergy to provide refuge for those engaged in military duties.
On this particular occasion I visited one such establishment. I cannot for the life of me remember the name or location, but it was the subsequent events which highlighted it for me. As I recall, there were about thirty girls there, mostly connected with the church. The one I asked to dance seemed shy, reserved and serious. I don’t recall the conversation exactly, but it was on the lines of an analysis of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or did Professor Joad answer the question correctly on last night’s ‘Brain Trust’ on the wireless. Something like that anyway. I had decided she would be a likely frosty drawers (a vulgar term). Girls like this were attributed to have elastic top and bottoms in their knickers. With the last waltz being played I was always more keen on taking home, rather than the dancing. I diffidently enquired that if she hadn’t got an escort I was available. I warned that you never knew how many baddies were about these days. She said she would be delighted to accept my offer and was hoping I would ask.
Walking back to Bournemouth there was always a secluded park or garden one could rest in for a short while and this evening was no exception. Suggesting we sit on the grass, as I had understood from the ‘Bournemouth Echo’ there were nightingales in the nearby trees. If we listened carefully we might hear one. A likely story, she said, it was probably a cuckoo. After attempting a chaste kiss she informed me she was a straightforward sort of girl and didn’t believe in beating about the bush. She said she was married a month ago to a childhood sweetheart. He has been posted to the Far East and we thought the marriage allowance, and what we could save, when he came back, which could be years, we might have enough to buy a house. All very proper. Tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands did exactly the same. The only problem appeared to have been that the week’s honeymoon had been an outstanding success and had opened up unanticipated delights, and as a result of this there would be a premature addition to the family in eight month’s time. She went on. I would not seek to deny my husband extra-marital lovemaking (the word sex was frowned on at the time) as he may be away a very long time, and I am sure it wouldn’t mean anything to him and he would take whatever safeguard and precautions deemed necessary. Her own requirements, having been awakened by the pleasures of the flesh, were that she needed an agreeable young man of integrity, with a wise head and a still tongue, as a surrogate lover, to visit her at her at her one bedroom flat two or three, or even three or four times a week, for about an hour to satisfy any inhibitions or frustrations from a physical, rather than an emotional standpoint. She in turn, was prepared to refuse offerings of that nature from any other source or direction. At the time, I had not realised I had been under surveillance as a likely contender for the post.
By one of the fortunes of war, I did have, at the time, a young lady friend who had everything a man could possibly wish for, looks, figure, charm, intelligence. I used to meet her in Bournemouth Square, where she worked and we would spend the evening together, then put her on the bus home at 10 o’clock with a goodnight kiss and a hug. This was all she would permit. She had been married for a year, her husband was a pilot officer in a particularly active unit and was reported missing after a few weeks. It was the custom, in those days, to pretend aircraft had force-landed in enemy country, but that the crew were safe, or all the parachutes had been seen to open. Sadly this very rarely happened, especially in this particular case. She was convinced that one day he would walk through the door, not say anything, go upstairs to bed and they would stay there for a week.
There is no doubt, in wartime Bournemouth, as in everywhere else, that a great deal of heartache did come about as a result of liaisons between young people who were brought together under circumstances which would not normally have occurred, had it not been for the war. As far as these two young ladies I knew in Bournemouth, I sincerely hope they realised their hopes and ambitions, and did live happily ever after. They deserved to, being victims of a senseless war not of their making.
Much was made of the decline in moral values during the Second World War, usually by people who were not directly affected. It was not surprising, when hundreds of thousands of young men, little more than boys, were conscripted in 1939 into the armed forces, followed by young women in 1941. Married women with young children were exempt, initially, but they were encouraged to take up war work. When these young people were removed from a secure environment, and the stable relationship of family and friends, it was a recipe for disaster. The 250,000 battle casualties and the 30,000 civilian air raid deaths in 1940/1941 did not help to sustain morality.
No self respecting person who happened to be around during the Second World War, was without their individual bomb story, the one that just missed them, even if it was half a mile away.
I thought coming to Bournemouth from London in 1942, I would be spared any of that, so I decided, as I was responsible only for the ground floor, although occasionally the upstairs rooms were vacant, all I needed to do was perhaps organise a bit of fire watching and have a word with the agent about past and possible future air raids in the immediate vicinity. The first, it seems, was on 7th October 1941, when two parachute mines dropped near the Heathlands fell into the sea, smashing a few windows in premises in Bath Road and Westover Road and the Royal Bath Hotel.
There was another raid in May 1942, involving a delayed action bomb and another in June 1943. I’m sorry if this is not a complete record. What was really frightening for me anyway, was Sunday May 23rd 1943. It was my custom on Sunday to give a personal test to all the ten machines in the Heathlands, to make sure they all flew effectively for the rest of the week. After the usual late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, it was customary to have a lie in until about 11.00 a.m. missing breakfast at the Metropole and going for an early lunch about 12 noon, returning at 1.00 p.m. to do my one hour’s testing. The rest of the day, from 2.00 p.m. was my own, as they say.
At 1.00 p.m. just at the entrance to the Heathlands, the ground shook and there was the thump of an explosion with the familiar smell of cordite, which I knew well from the previous three years in London. Looking instinctively to the left there was a pall of black smoke and ash rising in the air. The Metropole had been hit. At almost the same moment two young ATS girls came dashing up from a small hotel a few yards along Grove Road. I think the establishment was called the St Ives Hotel and I believe it was St Ives’ turn to keep an eye on my that day. The girls’ story, as far as I could make out was that they had taken an early lunch to keep an eye on the hotel until the rest of the girls came back. They said “an aeroplane has landed on our roof, with the man still inside it. Could you get it and him down as we are frightened to go back in, and there are things we need”. Why girls always need so many things I’ll never know, when all a lad needs is a comb, a clean handkerchief and a few bob. However, sure enough there was an aeroplane on the flat roof of the small hotel. To all appearances it looked to have been placed there most carefully and was completely intact. There was exploding ammunition and stray wisps of smoke and the pilot staring straight ahead. At the moment a fireman came up towing an auxiliary fire pump and said “I think you’ll need this” and asked if I knew how to handle it, which fortunately I did, and off he went advising me not to go into the building, just play the hose all over the building, don’t point the jet straight at the aircraft, you might rupture the fuel tank. This did seem to do the trick and I thought I had the fire under control. Then, about a dozen Canadian airmen turned up and asked if they could help. We’re really in the war now, aren’t we, isn’t it exciting. I think they said they had been in England a week. I turned the hose and pump over to two of them and explained that the girls wanted to get some of their belongings out and we would try to enter the building, in spite of the fireman’s warning to keep out.
Now it is not in my nature to attempt anything remotely dangerous, having twice before been in an aircraft which had caught fire. So, I approached the problem with extreme caution. The building was extensive, but only two storeys, with a flat asphalted roof. We went inside downstairs wanted about, with instructions from the girls and we recovered the items they wanted from upstairs.
Our Canadian colleagues enquired what next. The contents of the hotel, which had about twenty girl residents and appeared to be furnished as pre-war and seemed to be good quality, possibly antique. I said that if the fire gets hold it will go up in flames. Should we take the furniture outside then, they said. There was a medium sized lawn outside and our Canadian friends worked with great enthusiasm and pulled all the furniture outside, including, I might add, a grand piano.
Always being somewhat of a negative persuasion, I applauded their enthusiasm, but was fearful that the owner or agent of the hotel would turn up and tell use to put it all back again if it came on to rain. I had noticed it was getting rather warn upstairs, and suggested we had better go outside and review our position. On humanitarian grounds I thought perhaps we could find a ladder and check if there were any signs of life in the pilot.
No sooner had we all got out when there was a crash and part of the roof collapsed, revealing that the aircraft was a Focke-Wulf 190, not only that, but we could see it’s bomb load was still intact and everyone could have been blown to pieces. My enthusiasm for the pilot’s welfare instantly evaporated. He shouldn’t have come here in the first place. After the raid I learnt from the official report that the raid was a reprisal for a Baedeker raid on a German seaside resort which we had bombed, either because of a mistake or on purpose The report did not say.
I decided we had better check members of my staff to see if they were alright, which proved to be more hilarious than the previous event. I knew one of them stayed at the Metropole, so made that the first port of call. His name was Larry, a colourful character, who was always on the verge of pulling off a big financial deal, but usually had to borrow the day after he received his month’s pay. The Metropole had been sliced in two and poor Larry was right at the very top on the sixth floor, exposed to the elements, with half his room gone. Many Canadians were clawing at the pile of bricks and rubble, desperate to get to their friends in the Metropole bars. Deciding that we could not do anything but leave Larry to the professionals, the Bournemouth fire service having enquired how long it might take. I was told there were about fifty trapped in various parts of the building and they had sent for one of their Merry-weather 100ft turntable ladders, and it should be along any minute. I shouted the good new to Larry and said I had told them to take good care of him as he owed me five pounds and I didn’t want anything to happen to him until I had my money back. His reply was most uncomplimentary.
Having fixed a loudspeaker and microphone on somebody’s car, we toured around asking everyone to return to their hotels for a roll call. Several people I knew had been killed, how many I never knew, for some reason it was top secret.
Having taken care of the immediate problem affecting the Heathlands Hotel, as a result of the raid in May 1943, which was serious. It was a brilliant sunny day, as far as I can remember. I decided to assess the damage from other viewpoints.
The first thing, as it was obvious the Metropole would never be used again, was to provide for those eating in the restaurant, which was on the ground floor. This proved to be a relatively simple matter, as they could go to the Grand Hotel for their meals until other arrangements were made. I should like to stress that meals served were not of the order of pre-war days, available at the hotel then, but provided by mostly RCAF personnel who seemed to have access to food supplies of higher quality and variety than the RAF station. Comparison may be odious but that was my personal opinion, having to visit RAF stations occasionally. I decided to walk around Bournemouth and visit the bomb damaged sites to see if there were any implications affecting us. Walking down old Christchurch Road to ‘Beales’ which was a high quality department store, there did not seem to be much activity except someone rushing in search of keys to get into parts of the building, as there were incendiary bombs on the roof. The building appeared quite sound. I don’t think the gentleman found the keys, as returning a few hours later the building was gutted.
My principal interest in this was, I believe ‘Beales’ lent us an electric organ for the Sunday evening variety performance at the Pavilion. The Pavilion was the mainstay of entertainment during the war. The bars and ballroom were always open, and the Sunday evening variety concerts for members of 3PRC, were mostly locally inspired.
Lots of impressionist of George Formby, Stanley Holloway and such like, although there were top London artists from time to time as quite a few lived in the Bournemouth area. My principal concern, wandering around Bournemouth that evening, purely self-interest, was the large amount of damage to the overhead power lines of Bournemouth’s excellent electric trolley bus system. I thought that had put an end to my nocturnal perambulations, but amazingly this was quickly repaired. The official report of the raid on Bournemouth said a combined force of twenty-four Focke-Wulf and ME 109’s had taken part. The one which made the incredible landing in Grove Road was shot down by a Spitfire from Ibsley, at least they claimed it anyway.
As well as my official duties in the RAF, as we had friends in Germany before the war, I devoted some time to unofficial measures likely to bring about the war’s earlier successful conclusion. This required visiting a German embassy in a neutral country. One of my biggest problems was where I would go for my holidays. Now this did not pose any great problem for the majority of servicemen who went home on leave as far as their legs could carry them, to enjoy the company wives and girlfriends. Having none of these entanglements, and being free almost any weekend to go home to visit my parents, I looked further afield when taking the quarterly seven day leave. This facility was, and probably still is, available to all servicemen and women and with a free railway warrant, in addition, to cheer you on your way. Of course, there were limits to travel in the UK in war time, Southern and Northern Ireland, the far north of Scotland and the Isles of Scilly being about as far as one was able to get. One added advantage added to the many I enjoyed in Bournemouth was that I could continue my voyages of exploration during the seven day leave each quarter. Seven days which, by judicious manoeuvring, could be extended to eleven by including weekends and days off.
A particularly memorable wartime holiday occasion was when I unintentionally provoked the wrath of none other than MI5 military intelligence. I brought this on myself because, not for the first time, and certainly not the last, when I decided to plough an independent furrow without due regard to the consequences. My plan, at the time, was to travel on a grand tour of Ireland, stopping off at Londonderry, Dublin and Mallow and including a few days in Tralee, enjoying the sights and sounds of County Kerry. I had my own particular reasons for choosing these three locations, and also I had found fellow colleagues from Ireland in the RAF to be most agreeable companions, proud of their heritage, so I was keen to see what Ireland was all about. I understand there were a greater number of RAF personnel from the south, in proportion to their population, rather than in the north, although it was surprising, in both locations, to see so many young men working when in the rest of the British Isles, there was conscription of men into the armed forces up to the age of 41, so young men working as shop assistants, bus drivers and such occupations were decidedly in the minority. The tour if Ireland did mean quite a lot of organising. The first priority was to decide whether to make the entire trip in plain clothes or change into civilian clothes just before crossing the border to the south, to what was, in effect a neutral country.
This was not an easy decision in wartime as once you lose the cloak of anonymity and privileges a uniform provides, you are more readily exposed, which proved to be the case later on.
My reason for starting my journey in Londonderry was that I had heard the younger daughter of the family I had lived with in Ilstree for two years, had joined the Wrens when she became 18 and was stationed there. I thought it would be interesting to catch up on the latest news from Elstree, especially her family, as I viewed the possibility of returning there after the war. Her father was a serving officer with the RAF and her elder sister was an officer in army intelligence in India.
I must also admit to having, in addition, a vested interest in Elstree, as after a film had been completed a party was held to which I was usually invited, as I had assisted in the development of an optical device which threw the silhouette of an aircraft onto a screen, enabling many more onlookers to observe the progress of the pupil. This device was produced by the film company, with the co-operation of their laboratories, as a result I was assured of a job after the war, should I so require one. So, with my future at stake, if I survived the war, I set off for Scotland the day before, and travelling all night from Stranraer to Larne, I duly arrived in Londonderry at mid-day. My first priority was to find the phone number of the naval air station to try to locate my young lady acquaintance if that was possible. After about half an hour of the strenuous efforts of my naval friends to locate the girl, they said she must have left the station as she could not be found on site. As far as I remember it was early Saturday afternoon. The next objective was to find an hotel for at least one night, choosing the one which looked the most inviting. I experienced the charming contrariness of Ireland at first hand. There was a junior naval officer at the reception, desperately trying to book a room for the night as he said his young wife had turned up unexpectedly and he would be off the very next day half way round the world and have no idea when, if ever, he would return. His pleas and entreaties failed as the hotel was said to be totally occupied.
I was next in lone, when the sailor had left, and started by saying to the receptionist that I appreciate you are fully booked, which I suppose everywhere else is, but can you put me in touch with any other establishment in the town which might have a vacancy. He replied “certainly not sir, we will be delighted to offer you one of our best room”, which had just become available. He offered me no explanation for my bemused expression.
With part of my mission accomplished, I left the hotel determined to try again in search of my quarry, only to come across the young lady a few yards from the hotel. She was in a somewhat agitated state, saying what on earth are you doing here, I’ve just rushed here with a search party, someone here is urgently trying to contact me. I was able to reassure her it was nobody important, only me. However, we spent a very pleasant evening together. The next day it was off to Dublin for my first visit, which I found to be a magical city in wartime, with bright lights and shops full of luxury goods. Little, if any signs of war or uniforms, and steaks unimaginable in England, at that time. The dance halls too were a pleasant contrast to the English variety, not full of a variety of allied servicemen. One which I visited, the Olympia, I think it was called, left me in no doubt of her pro-British sympathies.
She asked me what I was doing there, I said I was enjoying the taste of freedom from blackouts, shortages and rationing. I had been asked to buy a watch for a colleague and a lipstick for a female friend and I had heard there were Germans in the diplomatic service who were unsympathetic to Adolf Hitler and refusing to return to Germany and thought it would be interesting to make their acquaintance. She was very suspicious of this until I reassured her my intentions were strictly honourable.
I always carried a notebook to jot down anything which might possibly be interesting and had addresses in this book which almost proved to be my downfall. I did get to Mallow. The reason for me wanting to visit the town was that the brother of an uncle of mine had unfortunately died, leaving, what was then, the vast some of £0,000.00. Enough to buy forty houses of the type we lived in. I thought the streets there must surely be paved with gold. By an unusual combination of circumstances I did come across a gentleman who had known my distant relative, who explained how this largesse had come about. It seems like my uncle, his brother was also a huntsman. Handsomely rewarded after a good days hunting by people who also were exceedingly knowledgeable about race horses. I also visited County Kerry for the first time on that occasion, staying at Benners Hotel in Tralee and rather unwisely joined a funeral wake party and having the grandfather of all hangovers the next day.
My slight clash with authority came about on returning to Northern Ireland to get the boat back to England. There were two gangplanks, one crowded with returning servicemen, the other with only the occasional civilian. I decided I did not want to mix with these rough servicemen, so chose the relatively unused gangplank to be confronted with two officious looking individuals, who demanded to know why I was trying to slink aboard the ship as this entrance was for cabin passengers and crew. I explained I had been enjoying a trip round Ireland for pleasure, and research purposes and was a serviceman. On being asked where I was stationed, I told them, at an hotel in Bournemouth, when they said they would have to check my unlikely storey. I said it would be difficult, as there were seventy hotels there with RAF personnel. All this they regarded as highly suspicious and said I would be searched and anything found of a subversive nature would be acted upon appropriately. I confessed then I did not want to be tortured and shoed them my notebook and explained the Russian and German addresses. This did cause a problem for my friends. One, as the invasion was likely to be only a few weeks away, was of the opinion I should be clapped in irons, or preferably shot. The other was more lenient, and said they would confiscate my wallet and notebook and I could expect to be in serious trouble. I was allowed to keep the money and leave pass.
I waited in fear and trembling for about a month, then I was called to the service police headquarters to receive a parcel and told, as this looks important, from military intelligence, you had better sign for it. It contained my notebook and wallet. No explanation.
In the Spring of 1944 it was common knowledge that the invasion of France was imminent and plans had been made for the evacuation of Air Force personnel of three PRC (personnel reception centre) from Bournemouth. The hotels were said to be needed to accommodate essential military personnel. This did not seem a particularly good idea when weeks before the landings, every road, field and open space between Southampton and Weymouth seemed to be cluttered up with tanks, Bren guns, lorries and military equipment of all kinds. It didn’t seem logical, by armchair strategists like myself, who thought, why should we have to abandon Bournemouth. What difference would a few days make when all this vast amount of equipment would have to be moved again to the nearest point to Calais.
All was revealed in the early morning of June 6th 1944. On the evening of the 5th June I had been drinking, not wisely, but too well. I only vaguely remember the reason for the drinking spree, and returning to my room I discovered somebody else was to share the room. Getting to bed about 12.30 to 1.00 a.m. I was disturbed by a louder than normal sound of aeroplane engines. The young lad in the room, he would be about eighteen, I was twenty five, making me positively ancient. He said, looking out of the window “come and see this wonderful sight"” I was not in the need for stargazing but it was indeed a fantastic sight. Hundreds of aircraft, fighter bombers, tug planes towing gliders. The whole sky was lit up as never before, as every aircraft had all their lights on. He said the invasion must be on. I said, unless we were invading Gibraltar it couldn’t possibly be, as they were all heading directly out to sea, turning at 90 degrees would be impossible. It must be some foolhardy exercise.
The next morning, on the wireless, on the 7 o’clock news, we listened intently and it was announced that allied forces had landed in Northern France. In Normandy, rather than Pas de Calais. The invasion meant the end of my five year stint of blood, seat and tears in the dance halls, pubs and restaurants of London and Bournemouth. So I started negotiations to go across to France myself. This was not easy to achieve and did require an element of manipulation as my particular skills were no longer in demand.
Bournemouth will always be among my favourite places. I have often re-visited the Heathlands Hotel, staying as a guest. It is full of ghosts for me now. Two things about Bournemouth in particular stick in my mind, military discipline, the night the Theatre Royal caught fire, a sergeant major had us running at the double, as the last one got out the roof fell in. The other thing was the Russians in Bournemouth, there were about a hundred. We had given them some old aircraft and they flew them back to Russia. They were a great bunch of lads, I did hear they said “Let’s hide, Bob Ward’s coming, he always wants to talk about politics.”
The Russian Ambassador said about me, much later, politically Bob Ward is well to the right of Gengis Khan, but we trust him, but that’s another chapter.
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