- Contributed by
- People in story:
- STAN WATTS
- Location of story:
- UK, AT SEA, SINGAPORE
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 June 2005
CHAPTER 3 - INTO THE FIRE
Well, we were on our way. We had no idea where we were bound. Finally we arrived at another splendid billet. It was, or had been, a private house in its own grounds well in the country — a lovely peaceful spot. We were allocated our rooms and in each were two bunk beds. I considered this the best billet I so far. It was fairly isolated, the nearest town being Warrington, which was quite a way. The name of the place was Thelwell. During our time from Nottingham we had the same CO who was very good to us. I managed to get into a room with most of my friends. There were eight of us in the room but two of the occupants were not part of the crowd. We had to have a corporal in charge of the room but we got on alright with him. He was the first person I was to meet who slept with his eyes open. It is true that one morning we had all overslept and the orderly sergeant came in and of course went to the corporal to ask him what he thought he was doing. Not receiving any answer, he shouted at him, asking why he did not reply. He thought he was awake as his eyes were open, but we knew differently. He started calling him insubordinate, threatening to put him on a charge, and the poor bloke was sleeping peacefully! In the end the sergeant in desperation pulled him out of bed. The corporal had no idea what was going on. To this day I do not think the story of him sleeping with his eyes open was believed, but it was a peculiar thing to have encountered.
It was summer and the weather was quite good. We were not overworked, but still kept things going, all in readiness for our eventual destination. It became increasingly hard to take things seriously — the attitude to what was happening did not seem possible. There was the occasion when I was invited to go to Manchester to visit the Aunt of one of my close friends. We started off completely broke, and after various hitch hikes we finally arrived and spent a pleasant day in good company. We left it rather late and missed the last bus. With apprehension we began to hitch hike and got to within ten or twelve miles of the base. It was pitch dark and well beyond lights out as we started to walk. Then we heard a car so we decided to flag it down and luckily he slowed, only because we were in uniform. We knew that if we asked for a lift the driver would refuse. My friend then took over. “Excuse me Sir,” he said “we are sorry to do this, but we are looking for an escaped prisoner and we thought that as he was in this area you might like us to escort you.” “Well,” he said “if that’s the case, certainly, only I thought you might be a couple of drunks, we get them returning to the local base.” We climbed in the back of the car. Meanwhile I had not said a word - I was amazed as we began to get nearer the base. It was difficult to see, being so dark. My friend asked the driver if he would mind slowing to a stop, and we both got out. My friend put his head in the window and said thanks for the lift, and we both disappeared into the darkness. I can remember as we ran thinking what he would do to us, and that he would report the whole business to the army. We both thought that would take a long time with so many soldiers roaming about — the trouble was we still had to get into our quarters past the sentry, and into our room. This necessitated creeping past the orderly room and we knew the orderly sergeant who was on duty was a miserable so and so. We managed to get near the entrance, and decided to try through the bushes. Unfortunately there was one of those very keen guards on, who shouts out “Who goes there?” Now, if it had been one of our mates, the answer would have been “Hitler”. In this case it was different. It was now nearly twelve o’clock and with a bit of luck they would be changing the guard. It was worth the wait — it was a friendly one this time. Having passed the first obstacle it was a case of creeping upstairs to our sleeping quarters. We did hear at breakfast that apparently one of the guards had reported some mysterious characters trying to infiltrate . We both agreed with everyone that you don’t know what’s happening at night. We don’t know how the motorist got on, but we both stopped worrying after some time had elapsed. We did not bother to accept any further invitations after that.
We heard that we were in for another move and this was to be the final one before leaving the country. This was not so good — it was in the grounds of a power station at Stourport. We were living in large wooden huts, quite a change from the country scenery. There was more activity on one occasion. We were informed that the station would be attacked by a Polish company and we were to stop this place being taken over: no information as to when this would happen, it was to be a complete surprise. It certainly was, nothing was done to prepare for this, we all thought it another one of those rumours just to encourage us to be on our toes. Then one morning, instead of waking as usual and thinking about getting up, the hut was full of Polish soldiers. They had just walked in during the night. The guards must have been asleep. We were not at all popular from then on, everything changed during our stay. We were told that there was a bit of a dummy war going on in the division between reds and blues. On this particular day some of us were on duty outside the station when a cyclist came along. A despatch rider we thought — now was the chance to make up for our previous dilatory attitude. He must be part of the other side trying to get through. We immediately stopped him. He was very vehement that he was not part of the mock battle and that he had an urgent message for the brigadier. A likely tale we thought, you are not going to get away with that. It was a good story but it was of no use. We took him to the guard room and told him that he would be released when the exercise was over. He still kept on telling us that he really was taking a message, and we thought what a good job he was doing trying to convince us, but we were not going to fall for that one. A few hours later there was an enquiry asking if we had seen a despatch rider in our area, as he was taking a special message to headquarters. Needless to say, instead of getting a pat on the back for doing our job well we were lucky not to have been court-martialled. After that we came to the conclusion that if we were in the same situation it would be a case of carry on.
Embarkation leave was over — a very sad occasion. We had no idea where we were going or if we would ever come back — it was just as well we could not see into the future. Now time was getting short. I remember vividly another of my friends receiving a message saying his wife had just given birth to a baby. He was allowed 24 hours leave, and that was the one and only chance he had to see his child. He lost his life on the railway of death.
The time was spent more or less tidying up the base. There were several items that were really unusable, amongst them a couple of dozen hose tops — the objects that looked like brown woollen socks but without feet. It suddenly came to us that that if we folded the two together it looked exactly like a pair of socks. It would be our last visit for a drink and finances were very low, so we sent an advance party to the local to enquire whether any of the locals would be interested in buying some socks at a very low price . The response was beyond belief. Our messenger had strict instructions he was to insist he could not produce any samples in the bar because it could get us into trouble. Everyone agreed — it is remarkable what people will agree to when the element of greed comes in and they are getting something through the back door. We had decided not to be greedy so the price per pair was to be very competitive. It was a good evening which helped us to try and forget things in general, with the satisfaction of imagining those civvies next day wondering where the feet had gone to. We ourselves left in the early hours, and would soon be many miles away on our last train journey in England. I remember changing at Crewe and entering snowy Liverpool docks in the early morning. We had been unable to give any information to our families, so when we knew where the train was making for most of us scribbled a quick note saying where we were as the train entered the dock. We asked the dock workers if they would post the letters for us, although we had no stamps — I think many of them did feel sorry for us.
CHAPTER 4 — THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Well, this was it. As we marched towards our transport I could see a very large ship which looked very smart. We did not know what to expect as we took our place to march up the gangway. Berthing cards were being handed to us and on looking at mine it stated cabin number and deck. There would be three of us to a cabin , which on arrival had two tier bunks and my mattress underneath the bottom bunk. I did suggest to the other two they might like to take my place, but the response was “Not bloody likely!” I had not had the chance to realise how devastating the result of this was going to be, but it did not take long to comprehend. Everything was suddenly going wrong. After trying to stow all our kit in this small cabin, we thought we would have a game of cards with the adjoining cabin. We were all sitting on the floor playing Nap and there was a decent kitty, when suddenly two regimental police walked in and informed us in their courteous way that gambling was an offence. They picked up the kitty and disappeared saying you will all be up on a charge — and we hadn’t left the dock! I just could not understand the NCOs outlook on life. Why did the majority enjoy making life miserable for other ranks? It started even from those promoted to temporary unpaid lance corporal, giving them power which enabled them to become sadistic.
Finally we were on the move, and next day we appeared before the officer in charge. We were let off with a caution, but we never saw the kitty again — we had a good idea who had that. It was understood that we were making for the Clyde to pick up the rest of the Division. The convoy being complete we set sail — but where to?
We had rather a small escort, considering the number of German submarines about. We had no idea where we were bound, but there were plenty of rumours, the strongest being the Middle East. We were a really up to date division with all the latest equipment. After a few days it was apparent that we were crossing the Atlantic. I gather there had been one or two attempts by enemy submarines, that is why the convoy had to travel almost to Iceland. We eventually arrived at Halifax. The journey had been pretty awful for me: the crossing was rather rough, and sleeping was not possible, because every time the ship rolled in the heavy seas, so I rolled from under the bunk across the cabin floor and then back again. I became so sea sick I was unable to eat for several days. The name of the ship was the Warwick Castle, and it had not been converted to a troopship at the time. I understood the officers’ quarters were much better.
Just before arriving at Halifax we saw a sight almost unbelievable. There on the horizon was a whole fleet of warships coming towards us.. Nothing had been said to us before, but now we were told that this was part of the USA fleet which was going to protect us from now on, although in November 1941 they were not even in the war. We eventually docked at Halifax, and were then told that we would be embarking on the American transport ships. It was all very hush-hush, but there was one flaw. The convoy consisted of the West Point, which had been the luxury liner America, two other very fine ships named after presidents, and a diabolical wreck called the Orizaba. We were to find out later that this ship had been taken from the graveyard and tarted up to join the convoy. Of course, who was detailed for this ‘luxury liner’: all those who had been on the Warwick Castle. As we embarked it became clear what kind of ship this was. Our quarters were just about as far as you could get to the bottom, and consisted of bunks with nowhere to stow our kit. Conditions were so bad that there was a general complaint. Most of us had walked off. It was promised that there would be an investigation of our complaint if we returned to the ship. We should have known better. When we awoke in the morning the ship was standing offshore. A lesson that one does not stand a chance with authority!
So began one of the worst trips possible. The food was anything but good — I had never seen so many different beans in my life. There was very little room to do anything and we were always at loggerheads with our dear American friends — quite a few punch-ups! They looked upon us as inferior and felt they were doing us a favour transporting us. The feeling was mutual. They made sure that they looked after themselves. Their food was much better than ours. They had a habit of making themselves unpleasant. Some of them would be sweeping the deck and accidentally on purpose, sweep the whole lot of rubbish down to where our quarters were. The convoy sailed on 10th November, hugging the American coast. It was amazing at times to see the lights on shore. Unfortunately I was suffering from sea-sickness again. I was actually in the sick bay of the ship, which was full of American sailors, and had been there only two days when I was suddenly discharged without any reason except that my bed was needed for a more urgent patient. That was that! My CO had tried unsuccessfully to arrange for me to be taken off at Trinidad, which was our first port of call since leaving Halifax, although we did not actually dock — we stood out to sea and there was no shore leave. That was as far as I got to getting away from it all. The weather had been really good and it was so pretty amidst the islands. So near to paradise and yet so far.
The days were spent partly drilling with arms drill. A couple of soldiers had died from natural causes and were buried at sea. It was moving to think to oneself of ending one’s life at the bottom of the ocean, far from home, and without one’s family knowing exactly where their loved one was. I remember when crossing from the Atlantic to Cape Town the waves were so high that as you stood on deck as your ship entered the swell nothing else was visible except the water — it was incredible. I appeared to be making a recovery from the sea sickness, and actually managed my breakfast and other meals that day. The mess deck was almost empty as the ship rolled, so the plate of food slipped from one end of the table to the other. That was enough in itself to make one feel sick. I felt really proud of myself, and was able to pass a few remarks, having had plenty said to me. On arrival at Cape Town we had been at sea for 42 days without leave, and it was beginning to have an effect on us. There was precious little we could buy, and we missed that glass of beer. Although the crew had ice cream, there was none for any of us, and we began to hate the ship and our way of life.
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