- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Victor John Flack
- Location of story:
- Freetown, Durban, South Africa; Port Fouad, Egypt
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 December 2005
Instalment 3 — RAF Early 1942 - Abroad
So 1942 seemed to have got off to a good start. The weather was now very cold, and snow had arrived. Something else had arrived! It was the news that the CMO was closing down, and those of us from 58 Squadron were going back there. We were back in Linton on 11th January. The whisper then circulated that the whole squadron was to be moved in February to Eastmoor, a place nearer to York, the rumour said. I seemed to have been constantly on the move since leaving the safe and settled environment of the training school at Kirkham.
Linton received a heavy snowfall that January, as a result of which we had to clear the snow from the mainplanes and fuselage of the aircraft, and also join the snow clearing parties tackling the runways, using lorries modified to carry a blade on the front.
On Tuesday 20th January, I had been clearing snow, doing the D.I. (Daily Inspection) on the Whitley, signed the aeroplane maintenance form 700, and had just settled down in the dispersal hut to thaw out, when a corporal opened the door and came in. All went quiet. He glanced around, and then enquired if there was a V.Flack present. My first thought was that I must have done something wrong. Had they discovered that, during my stay in the married quarters, I had taken part in the nocturnal activity of creeping out to a great heap of coal and hauling some back to supplement our meagre allowance for the house? There wasn’t time for any more guilty secrets to surface. It was obvious who V. Flack was, as, naturally; all eyes swivelled to the culprit. No crime had been uncovered however; the messenger had come to let me know that I was posted overseas. What a relief, - nothing too serious then. They must have been desperate to acquire my services abroad as I had to go immediately to suffer another inoculation, get a clearance chit and leave form signed, collect a travel warrant, and travel home on embarkation leave, arriving home in Enfield the following day, Wednesday 21st January at 8.30 pm.
During that leave, I think Mum must have written some letters, because several rarely seen relations appeared on our doorstep. Then on Tuesday 27th January, a telegram came, requesting me back in camp. What I didn’t know, was that this time it was going to be over three years before I trudged up Cecil Avenue to home, and all those familiar faces, again. We used to have fancy iron railings on our front garden wall, but by the time I got back, they had all disappeared, having been requisitioned for the war effort.
The day after the telegram arrived, I was back to camp, and preparing for the first stage of my tour abroad, which was to travel the short distance to Blackpool. This happened on Thursday. Weather was different of course, heavy snow making the town look a lot less attractive than the previous May, when we raw recruits had enjoyed the novelty of service life, and been blessed with fine weather.
During the next few days, we were given lectures in various places. At least one lecture was delivered on the pier. I remember that, because when our marching column reached the pier, we had to “break step”, which I understand was to avoid the probability of the pier collapsing, due to the rhythmic thump of so many service boots.
No one knew exactly where we were going, but as one lecture was mainly about flies and mosquitoes, and when tropical kit was issued, including a topee, we knew that somewhere warm was not out of the question. An extra kit bag was issued to contain all the newly acquired equipment. One of those kit bags, I still have. Something else I still have is an unwieldy penknife incorporating a tin opener. The topee, I have not still got, in fact that was hardly ever used. Both of the kit bags had to be marked, using stencils “TX-TX. X7/M”, and on Friday 13th February one of them had to be handed in. My diary has not recorded which part of our kit had to be in that one — stuff not wanted on voyage I suppose.
Now it is February 14th — Saturday. No sign of any cards for St. Valentine’s Day. We were loaded on to a lorry and taken to the railway station; destination Liverpool, another lorry trip and we found ourselves at the docks.
On the dockside, we were dealt with very quickly, and as these events were taking place over half a century ago, only the more significant memories come to mind. Among the items issued at this time, was a packet of contraceptives. We all got one of these, and bearing in mind my tender age, and the fact that bodily functions were only discussed in hushed tones in those days, the purpose of these things was beyond my comprehension, - and there were no instructions with them. Another item of much more value to me at that time was a berthing card.
My diary tells me that we handed in our identity cards, and at two pm, climbed the gangplank on to a sizeable troopship, - the Strathaird. This ship had been used by my Dad’s cousin, Cissie, (and a few others of course) to travel from India to UK in 1938, I didn’t know that at the time, but the postcard — copy later — was discovered at my folk’s cottage after the war.
My berthing card entitled me to proceed to Deck D, (well above the water line) cabin 200C, and when found, proved to be a four berth cabin, with washing facilities and round porthole. Very comfortable. No room service of course, but I didn’t mind, especially when I found that most Erks were down in the hold, not shackled like slaves of bygone days, but considerably less cosseted than I was. Couldn’t believe my luck, first the home-like married quarters in Linton, and now a cruise in a cabin, only 3rd class, but I wouldn’t complain.
During my tour of inspection on that Saturday, I discovered that there were oranges on board, also lots of milk chocolate from Capetown, both commodities being very scarce in the ration stricken shops of Britain at that time.
The cabin was not exclusively for me. I had the company of three other Erks, all good company though. After a peaceful night, we went to the mess deck for breakfast at seven thirty. Then there was a lifeboat drill, we had to put on our lifejackets, and stand by one of the rafts stacked on the deck. Apparently, when the ship was torpedoed, and we were all in the sea, we had to hang on to the ropes draped around the raft until (if) rescued. The jolly “We’re off on a cruise” atmosphere began to cloud over. It was now Sunday 15th February. Things began to happen. Ropes were released from the bollards on shore. We threw down letters to the Dockers, for them to post for us. Tugs began to nudge the ship into mid-stream. The engines were started, a sound new to us land-lubbers, but which were expected to get used to. At least we thought that was going to happen, but after all the excitement of leaving the dock, we found that direction was reversed, and back we went to the quayside. The buzz went round that there was a problem with a steam pipe, repairs were necessary.
Engines were started again on Tuesday 17th, and the tugs towed us out stern first (blunt end first). We were instructed not to undress to sleep, life jackets to be with us at all times. That night we slept well, probably due to the lulling effect of the engine noise, and the rocking of the ship.
While sleeping in our bunks, we hadn’t realised just how much the ship was bobbing up and down, but after we had been vertical for a while, it became evident just how rough the sea was, the propeller screws sometimes rising clear of the water, causing more vibration. Food lost its attraction, and lying down was much more desirable proposition than reeling about on deck.
It was not until the following day, that we were recovered enough to enjoy the view from the porthole. What we saw was one corvette, the only protection we had from submarines, the convoy we were supposed to be part of, had sailed without us. We could not see the corvette all the time, the sea was very rough, and the corvette was very small, it kept disappearing from view in the troughs between the waves, to we inexperienced sea farers, it was remarkable that it was able to keep afloat at all. Our larger ship creaked alarmingly, quite all right we are assured, if it doesn’t creak, then you are in trouble.
By Friday we were well used to the ship’s motion. The weather got warmer, and we began to enjoy our trip. The captain must have been anxious to catch up with the convoy. This happened the next day — Saturday. We could see ships on the horizon, they seemed to be travelling at right angles to us, but that was because we were approaching on their flank, ready to take up position among them. Messages flashed to and fro by means of signalling lamps, and we were manoeuvred into a position where we could have a better view from our porthole. The corvette had been banished to the outskirts of the convoy, we now had an aircraft carrier to view, which occasionally sent up a small flying boat (Walrus), which was later winched aboard after doing whatever it was that it had been sent up to do. .
Weather was getting much warmer, there was a holiday atmosphere now, especially in the evenings as it got dark, and we had concerts outside on deck. We could sit on the rafts or any other convenient furniture, (no deck chairs). We could gaze up at the masts gently swaying against a backdrop of stars, and join in singing the current pop hits like, “We’ll meet again”, “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”. Those old tunes still bring the memory back; it’s nice to wallow in nostalgia sometimes. I can understand now, why Dad enjoyed tunes like — It’s a long way to Tipperary, and Keep the Home Fires Burning, probably sung whilst trudging through the mud in France, and never very far from the sound of gunfire in W.W.I.
We were now used to the routine of a troopship, the threat of sea sickness had passed, the constant heavy throb of the engines was no longer a novelty, and during my walkabouts, I had discovered a bathroom , so with the aid of my sea water soap, I helped myself to a refreshing bath.
Up to now, that door of the cabin had only been opened by one of us four residents, we were not expecting visitors, and especially not during a lifeboat drill! The intruders were three high ranking officers, obviously representing the three services. They seemed as surprised as we were, and being of superior rank, were in a position to take the initiative. We were now in the company of intelligent, educated, and well spoken people, who politely enquired why we were not out on deck absorbing lifeboat drill. We explained that we had done the drill, and knew the procedure when the ship sank. We were then requested to provide proof of our entitlement to a cabin. Producing our berthing cards got over that one.
Then, with regret, we were asked to vacate the cabin, - there were men of higher rank than us, not enjoying the sort of accommodation which we had, “Not fair eh chaps?” one of them said. We parted on amicable terms; relieved to get off lightly, and after that, I slept on a mess deck table. or out on deck, along with many others, it being more convenient to abandon ship from these positions above the water line.
On 25th February, we all had to change into tropical kit. Most of mine fitted quite well, but a lot of exchanges were done.
A few days later, a brilliant green strip of coastline was in sight. It was ten days since leaving cold grey, and misty Liverpool, this was a complete contrast. It was now warm and sunny, and the vivid green we were now approaching, was Freetown, Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa.
What I know now, that I didn’t know then because I didn’t pay enough attention during geography lessons at school, is that our sea journey had begun in the Irish Sea, then we had crossed the Atlantic to West Africa. Now that I am more interested and have the benefit of a map to look at, I have discovered that after Freetown, where water supplies and fuel etc. could be taken on, we were to proceed to South Africa-Durban, where we were to be transferred to a different ship. We were then to proceed up the Indian Ocean, crossing the equator, where I dripped sweat when I had a cup of tea, turned left into Gulf of Aden, then up the Red Sea to Egypt.
On 6th March, the convoy left Freetown to start the next stage of the journey to Durban. From the stern of the ship, we could watch “flying fish”; these could leap from the water, and sustain themselves in the air for a short time by their pectoral fins, as if flying. Not a lot of people know this. A rather more sinister appearance was the fins of sharks, apparently foraging for the waste ejected from the ship. Some time later I read in an Egyptian newspaper, that when a troopship had been torpedoed off Freetown, many casualties were caused by sharks.
On 21st March, we were docked at Durban. Here, we were given shore leave. After five weeks on the ship, we could walk on dry land. This was my first experience of a foreign country. Some of the lads who had been ashore earlier, were offered hospitality by local people, they’d had a really good time. These generous local people were missing when I stepped ashore, so I just enjoyed the experience of strolling around amid the din of crickets, and watching coloured South Africans loping along pulling rickshaws at speed, occasionally tilting the rickshaw up, - passenger and all, and covering about twenty feet or more with the rickshaw shafts supporting them off the ground. I didn’t bother with a rickshaw ride.
Next day was our last full day on the Strathaird, and we were again given shore leave. Tied up close by, was another liner, Mauritania 2, recently built to supersede an earlier, much larger Mauritania, which I thought at the time, had been scrapped, but I have since learned, was still giving service during the war.
On Monday, we were transferred on to the almost new Mauritania. No luck with a cabin this time, my berthing card curtly directed me to a hammock, number 406. Leaving Durban behind, we found that we had no escort. We were now in the Indian Ocean
On April fools day we arrived at Port Fouad, Egypt, and descended the gangplank, to see what we could do to assist our beleaguered colleagues struggling to prevent the enemy from taking Alexandria and Cairo.
Port Fouad is adjacent to Port Said, and from here we were taken to Kasfareet, on the banks of the Suez Canal, this being the RAF Middle East Pool for new arrivals.
Tents were already erected for us, but not a bed in sight. Part of our kit was a waterproof cape, which also doubled as a groundsheet, so this was used in lieu of a mattress and bed.
I slept well, the sand was marginally more comfortable than a ship’s mess table, but the disadvantage of sleeping on the sand became apparent the next morning.
As I woke up, I became aware of movement a few inches from my nose. Things crawling about, - lots of them. I jerked up on one elbow to get them in focus. Nearly one inch long (25 mm), many legs — we had been warned about scorpions, - couldn’t be them, - no curly tail, what the hell are they? I didn’t spend too long on a closer examination, there being no coat hangers in the tent, and our clothes were all on the floor (sand), within seconds mine had been located, shaken vigorously, and put on while I was still waking the others. Nobody had been bitten, and we learned that these were common ants, much larger than our home grown ones, entirely harmless, and our tent had only recently been put up over their nest. I suppose they were in the process of moving out.
We had to parade every morning for postings, and job allocation while we were waiting. A lot more tents had to be erected, so we were kept busy. We also had time to go swimming in the Canal, a welcome event, as the days were getting hotter.
As this was a RAF HQ for new arrivals, there were facilities for sending telegrams, and I sent one home on 4th April. This was among the letters Mum had kept; it arrived in Enfield on 10th April 1942. They had not heard from me since my letter of 15th February from Liverpool, and of course we had no means of knowing how things were at home.
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