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Peckham to Burma & Back Part 1

by activejoesoap is Denis Gardner

Contributed by 
activejoesoap is Denis Gardner
People in story: 
Denis Gardner
Location of story: 
England,India & Burma
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A8072552
Contributed on: 
27 December 2005

On the 1st of February 1944 I volunteered for the R.A.F.I was now seventeen and a quarter. By this time we were starting at last, to win the war. Churchill had said "It was the end of the beginning" At this period in time, some of those being called up were being sent to work in the coal mines as it seemed the Army had an over supply of men, and coal was in short supply, due to lots of strikes. By those wonderful unionists who seemed to have as many strikes during the war as before.
By this time we had moved again, this time to Brockley 29,Road Finland Road.
From this home I remember one morning going to work on the bike along St.Asaph road and just before the Nunhead railway station seeing an area cordoned off in the middle of the road junction, when I went to have a look, as were lots of other people, I found out it was an unexploded bomb. It was later defused by those Hero’s who worked on these bombs.
This home was the best, we had lived in so far, The dining room had French doors that opened on to the garden, one thing that was not good, one room was locked, with the owners furniture in it. I remember going with Dad to a house in Copeland road, to see the owner, to get the key for this room. Reason being, if that room had ever caught fire, no one could get in to tackle the fire. He got the key after a lot of persuasion on his part.
On the 2nd February I had another interview for the R.A.F. I now knew I would be accepted, for ground crew, after being rejected medically unfit for flying duties. Because of my eyesight not being 100%. “I had volunteered for Flight Engineer just like Sidney.” My Brother-in-Law
Being in the Air Training Corp had helped me get into the ground crew duties.
I was called up on the 15th of May, which was a Monday. I was nearly seventeen and three quarters. Mum packed my bag and on that morning after farewells I caught the bus to Liverpool Street station, and a train to Cardington. The station was full of servicemen and women.
Everywhere one went were posters on walls of bombed out buildings at the stations and any spare areas. Posters were telling ‘Careless talk costs lives, most of the posters were designed by Fougasse the cartoonist. The funniest one showing, a couple of girls on a bus chattering away and, underneath, the warning ‘you never know who’s listening’? And true enough, behind them are seated the Fuhrer and his fat friend Reichmarschal Goring in his full fancy dress with medals and in his hand the Field Marshal’s baton. Others were-- ‘Don’t spread rumour’s. ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases so use your handkerchief’ ‘Save for Victory Buy Victory Bonds’, Is Your journey really necessary?.
At this time it was stated that there would not be any income tax refunds, any money paid from income tax refunds was put into a Victory Bonds and would be paid at the end of the war.
In fact these bonds were not paid out until 1947.
Also from 1943 onwards there was a concentrated effort by the Communist Party to start a second front so as to alleviate the pressure on the Red Army. ‘Start Second Front Now’. Was the cry and this was chalked and painted on any available space, it also appeared in poster form.
On the day I joined the R.A.F the second front was only three weeks a way.
At Cardington camp, we were firstly fitted out with a uniform, and were not allowed outside the camp until the uniform looked respectable on us.
At this stage all volunteers could change their minds in the first week and go home if they wanted to. To me it was the start of a great adventure. I was in this camp for two weeks, during this time one has to test for a trade to work in. I got into the highest pay group that I could get into. Aircraft Finisher, this entailed a eight week course in fabric covering of certain types of aircraft also painting of camouflage to an aircraft. Pay was three and six a day for a A.C.2, [Aircraft man second class] My service number was 3035846, a number one never forgets. To receive your pay each fortnight, after your name was called, you marched smartly to the pay desk stamped your feet to attention and saluted the paying officer with the right arm and hand,[longest way up shortest way down] one had to say loudly SIR and the last three figures of your service number 846. After being fitted out with my new uniform I could then send back home the bag with all my old clothes and towel.
After leaving Cardington a group of us were taken by train to Skegness in Lincolnshire, to do our square bashing. We were met at the station by many N.C.Os who started bawling at us to fall in and number off, our lazy days were over it seemed. After the N.C.O.s [ Non commissioned officers] were satisfied with us we were handed over to the Doctor and he gave us all a couple of different injections. I don’t think they changed needles in those days except when the needle became too blunt to use anymore, we also received the usual F.F.I. free from infection inspections, which entailed dropping your trousers, the Doctor would then lift your penis with a ruler or with a pencil and check the area, followed by the cough test.
Skegness being on the east coast was then deserted of visitors and tourists, the beach was a mass of barbed wire entanglements and concrete anti tank structures.
Here we stayed for two months doing our drill and night manoeuvres, which were great, we all had fun, We used our rifles on targets, crawled around at night under barbed wire, threw hand grenades, I don’t think any of us took it seriously, it was just a big game.
Every second day we were taken by a Sergeant and a corporal on a route march. I reckon the Sergeant and the Corporal were on a good thing, for every time we stopped for a cup of tea and a wad it was always outside the same café, we paid for ours but they got theirs free. It was whilst in Skegness that the Invasion of Europe took place on June the 6th. Lectures were another great activity that took up our time, we would try to get up the back of the hall so we could go to sleep without being seen. The lectures covered all aspects of service life. We were billeted in private houses that had been commandeered by the Air Force. All meals were served at the Billy Butlin Holiday camp, which was closed because of the war. It was during one of the evening meals that the chap in front of me asked the W.A.A.F who was serving the sweets, ‘Eh lass what er those black things in the coostard’ ‘Niggers Knackers’ she replied. He had never seen prunes before. This became a catch cry for the next few weeks. We were free at night to go anywhere, but money was the restriction, as our wages were in the vicinity of three and sixpence a day,[until we had our trade grouping] about thirty cents in to days currency, but I do remember the good fish and chips that we could buy, I was always hungry. This is where our pittance was spent on food, the pictures, and cigarettes. To get into the picture shows was hard as the place was teeming with service men, but if you got there early enough you could get in for nine pence before that part filled or you would have to go up to a shilling or even pay one and nine pence for the best seats in the house. Some time in mid July we had our passing out parade, then a party at which we had a collection for the N.C.O.s who had managed to get us to this pinnacle of smartness and efficiency.
In late July I was posted to Cambridge, 54 M.U. [Maintenance unit] the posting was only a fill in until the next trade course started. The weather that July was warm and beautiful even though just across the Channel the battle for the France was being fought. I had very little to do. The section I was in, repaired fabric on aircraft. [In those days lots of planes wings were just a metal frame with fabric on the out side] It was in July that Nellie received that dreaded telegram, Sid was missing in action in West Africa. It was a long time before she got conformation of his death. Their son John was only 3 months old.
Whilst at Cambridge I would on occasions go out with a crew to an American Air force base, for some repair work. It was from these R.A.F. and U.S.A.F. bases that were stationed around Cambridge the bombing of Europe was taking place, It was also in this area that nightly train loads of war wounded were being brought to the many hospitals in the area.
I was billeted in one of the Cambridge colleges. Jesus College, our meals were served in the great hall, which had a raised deck where the teaching staff wearing gowns, were served their meals. On a Sunday we would be marched through town to church parade, often passing a column of Italian prisoners being marched to the farms where they worked, they stopped at shops to pick u papers or whatever they needed. [Italy had surrendered in1943]
Whilst in Cambridge a friend named Parker, who I had worked with at Sullivans, use to send me a letter with a two shilling piece sewn between two pieces of thin cardboard, I used to write back immediately so he would send the same again. He was sorry for me being in the services and getting such low pay. Trouble was he soon got fed up with all the letters, so it did not last long.
At last, the Trade course started in Kirkham just about 10 miles out of Blackpool. It was about the beginning of August1944. Here, life was very strict, the barrack room was inspected every morning before going to breakfast. The course classes started after breakfast until late in the afternoon, On a Saturday we finished a bit earlier in the afternoon, enabling us to get a bus into Blackpool and then we would find a bed and breakfast for the night, and come back Sunday night. Blackpool then was bulging at the seams with servicemen but mostly Americans, this meant that prices of all entertainment was high, and going to the pictures on our low wage was out of the question. During the week we would go to a pub not far away called, the “Bird and the Bastard” by all the servicemen, the real name was “The Eagle and the Child” or something like that. Many a time we did not get out of a night because the floor of our barrack room was not clean enough for the Sergeant who was inspecting, and we would have to do it all over again, but to us it was all a big game and a laugh.
Our main entertainment on the Sunday was at the great fun fair that was the main attraction in Blackpool. One of the attractions was called the Mad House where one could stay for hours, and this only cost a shilling, or sometimes the girls who were on holidays from the mills during Wakes week would pay our admission in.
I passed the course and was now an A.C.2 [Aircraftsman second class], wage seven and sixpence a day. It was mid October1944. After the course ended, we spent a week painting large rocks white, these lined the driveway entrance into the camp. We were then told we were going overseas and we were granted two weeks embarkation leave. Boy oh boy was that wonderful, going home on leave, in uniform. We did not know where we would be sent but we all had ideas about where it might be.
What a shock I received when arriving back in London, the buzz bombs were the daily fare. After I left in May the Buzz bombs started in June, and had been exploding all over the place ever since. One of the places I visited whilst on leave was my old work place [H.W.Sullivans] in uniform of course, to see all the chaps I had worked with, this visit was spent in the air raid shelter most of the time. On the roof of the factory were a couple of men spotting and the workers only went to the shelter when the spotters thought the danger was immanent, but all visitors were made to take cover as soon as the siren sounded.
At home in Finland road, were Mum, Dad, Nellie and Baby John. This house had a Anderson shelter in the back yard. Nellie, baby John and I had to use it one evening during an alert. During this leave, I remember one evening going to the tram terminus at Brockley to meet mum and dad, as it was so foggy. Dad in those days used to meet Mum at her place of work. [Inland Revenue] and then they would come home together.
It was now the beginning of November 1944 and after my leave I was posted back to Blackpool, this time right in Blackpool in a private home. There were six of us in this house waiting to go overseas. The landlady was paid thirty shillings a week to board us, I was always hungry and the meals were always small. She was always moaning about the war and how she was suffering in Blackpool which was free of air raids. During this time I met up with a chap named Harry Attewell. Some of our days were spent attending lectures others were free. Harry and I met two girls, in the first week, we were there, the one I liked was named Agnes Cheetham, I forget Harry"s. Both girls lived at Poulton Le Fylde which is a few miles out from blackpool, we would meet them twice a week, walk around, the town or walk along the promenade, and maybe a cuddle and a kiss in the bus shelters, it was a very cold winter, or if we could afford it go to the pictures, then after the pictures walk them to the Red Ribble bus station for their ride home, if we had only walked for the evening then we would buy fish and chips before the ride home {it was in this fish shop that we had met them} One night we missed the last bus for them, so I gave them a ten shilling note for the taxi ride home, it was all I had so I spent the next week without any money. Because of this generous act I was invited to her home.
Blackpool at this time was crowded with troops mostly Americans, who were better paid and better dressed than us. Pubs, clubs, picture theatres were all crowded each night. The catch cry then, about the Yanks was, “Over sexed, Over paid and 0ver here”.
As the time drew close to going overseas, I emptied my bank book and sent it home, one day a few of us were on a tram, discussing our poverty, and I might have been a bit loud, in saying how I was broke , for a lady put a two shilling piece into my hand just before she got off the tram. How nice. I bought a packet of 5 woodbines and something to eat, a couple of us shared the cigs and food.
About the middle of December we were kitted out with tropical gear so that made us think we were going to somewhere cold as we had heard stories of this sort. But no// the next day the 14th December we were on our way to Liverpool docks to board “The Queen of Bermuda”, a twenty two thousand ton ship, with three funnels. Belonging to the Furness Bermuda Line. [The only three funneled ocean line beside the Queen Mary]. After sailing we joined a large convoy of ships and a few destroyers to protect us, we had set sail for Bombay India. The first week was hell as most of us were sea sick, the latrines were awash with every ones meals, beside the blockages in the toilets. We slept in hammocks in the holds, hundreds of us gently swaying to the roll of the ship. We tried to sleep, fully dressed with life jackets on, we also had a little red light fitted to the life jacket, this was so we could be seen if the ship was torpedoed and we were in the water at night. After that first ten days we settled down, we gained our sea legs and one could start to enjoy the trip especially as we got into the Mediteranian sea where it was at least warmer. The thrill of being on a huge ship was great, we could roam most of the boat, we were issued 50 Player cigarettes each week and drinks were very cheap, a servicemans life was complete.

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