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- Celia Nicholls
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- 09 August 2004
War time in India with ENSA
By Celia Nicholls
These are the words of Cecilia Austin Nicholson, married name, Caryl, professional and theatrical name, Celia Nicholls.
My next wartime memory is of having my inoculations in order to go to India and the Far East. Of course you had to volunteer to do that, you couldn’t just be sent there. I shall try to list the inoculations that we had. The ones I can remember (although I think there were more) were yellow fever, cholera, TAB, smallpox and Typhoid. The men in our company went down like flies in front of us with all these injections - I don’t know how we did it, but Anne and I managed to keep going. We still had to rehearse during this time and I remember the buzz bombs were going over a lot. Food was at a premium, , and our poor landlady would put a meal on the table, the sirens would go and we’d have to rush to the basement and when we came back of course the food was cold. We still ate it, you didn’t waste it didn’t waste it!
Soon our company, including Anne, was ready for our next big wartime adventure, the thrilling prospect of going to first to France, to Malta, North Africa and then out to (so strange today when you hear the news) Baghdad, Basra, Karachi, and finally to Bombay, India.
Our Colonel in Chief in Bombay was Jack Hawkins the film star, and we were quite star struck in his company but he was very charming to us. We were stationed first of all in the Apollo Bunder Hotel in Bombay and I’m afraid we began to put on weight as we enjoyed all the fabulous meals on the menu, such a luxury after war rationed Britain. Our first engagement out there was to be in Poona. Then we were going on to Bangalore, but something happened between those two places which was quite a sad occasion. We had a lady pianist called Anne, an excellent musician. Sadly, although we had all been inoculated against it, she contracted smallpox. She had to be taken away to the hospital and eventually sent home to England where I believe she recuperated.
In India because of the long distances between the places we were travelling to we had a special ENSA rail coach with sleeping compartments and a kitchen to make our tea and cook some food. We had a wonderful bearer with us by the name of Dia who looked after us, going out to the villages to try to buy eggs or any thing edible for us. But when our pianist Anne was taken off the train, medical officers were sent from the nearest base to re-inoculate us all against smallpox. Then our coach was disconnected from the rest of the train and we were left in the middle of India on a siding somewhere! My next memories are so vivid of this time. We had a very limited amount of water on the coach and this was used very sparingly. Maybe a cup of tea in the morning, a small basin to wash down with and one day we got up in the morning to make the tea in the kitchen. Dia was there, and he said “Memsahib, no water!”
“But we must have, we filled up…” we exclaimed.
“No water Memsahib!” he said.
I’m afraid our wonderful soprano called Beryl had to confess that she had had a shower. Now we would all have loved a shower. We were sticky, we were hot, but you knew you couldn’t do it, it was against the rules. She had used all our drinking water, washing water, everything. Our poor bearer Dia had to go out with buckets and try and find some water which then had to be boiled up before we could drink it. Well I’m afraid Beryl was sacked for this offence and was sent home to England.
After a few days of this situation we were allowed to go on to Coimbatore Attached to a train coming down, arriving at our destination we were immediately put into a very old isolation ward which I don’t think had been used for years in a hospital. We were all a bit stunned by this because we were feeling alright, the ill affects from the inoculations had worn off and we tried to have a bit of fun. We would dress up, or play party games, whatever we could to pass the time. Eventually we were allowed to go into the army bases once more and entertain again. We made a wonderful trip up the Nilgriri hills in Southern India to Wellington, and Ooticamund.
I think it was from Wellington that we went up to the jungle camp where Anne and I slept in Nissan huts and we could hear the rats running over the corrugated roofs at night when we went to bed under our mosquito nets. We had to make sure that we put something into the big leather boots that we used in the jungle to stop perhaps a snake crawling into them at night. We didn’t want to put our feet into our boots in the morning to a nasty bite!
It was here that one of the personnel in the camp asked me if I would like to go and see a tiger in the jungle. I was quite naïve and absolutely up for everything in those days, after all I was only about nineteen or twenty, and I said I would love to.
“Can you ride a horse?” he asked.
“Well no, I’ve never been on a horse…” I said doubtfully.
“Oh it’s alright, I’ll give you a nice big calm horse to ride” he said.
So I said “ok”. So on the morning we had arranged to go riding, I went and stepped up on the pedestal to mount the horse, which seemed huge, very high up. I got on alright and the Sergeant and I cantered out of the camp to look for a tiger in the jungle.
“Don’t be worried about the tiger,” he explained. “If you so much as say boo to a tiger it will run away.”
I thought well, he knows about it, he’s been here a good while, and off I went quite happily with him. We got into the jungle and it was quiet and peaceful, all trees overhead were beautiful and my horse was indeed very nice and pleasant to ride. The Sergeant explained to me how to pull gently on the horses reins either left or right to turn him. Time went on, and after a while he said he thought we should go back, no tiger having appeared, and that we should go back by the road.
I turned my reins to the right, but unseen to me and obviously to the horse there was a ditch just before the road. As I turned his head to the right, his legs went down into the ditch and I sailed over his head onto the hard tarmac road, falling on my side and temple. I was knocked out for a little bit, and I remember putting my hand up to my head and feeling and seeing the blood where I was badly grazed.
The poor Sergeant was of course beside himself with worry. “Are you alright, are you ok?” he exclaimed in a panic.
“ I don’t know” I said, a bit bewildered and shocked.
“You’ll have to get back on your horse you know, we’ve got to get back into camp as quickly as possible!” he said as he helped me up onto the horse, who was very calm, obviously not bothered by the incident.
Of we cantered back into the camp. Anne and the medical officers were obviously distraught asking what had happened, and I explained I just ended up in the middle of the road somehow. I was taken to the medical department and bathed with antiseptics and things and told that I wouldn’t be able to work that night. I insisted I could, and that night, in the presence of the officers and all the members of the jungle camp we did our show. Every one was so nice to me because I had managed to get through it. Not that I don’t love them, but I have never been on a horse since.
My next war time memory is coming back from Southern India on our way to Calcutta, which is a long journey. We travelled on our ENSA coach, taking us back all the way through the great Indian Landscape up to Calcutta.
Before I had left for India my Father had given me a Brownie camera, telling me to make sure I photographed all the places I would see on my journey, which thankfully I did - I have some wonderful pictures which I took at that time. Any of the village shops in India would develop negatives for you and give you your prints in about an hour, so Anne and I went on particular day into a small shop to do just that. It was very hot and sticky and steamy and humid. We had been told not to drink anything that had not been boiled and passed by inspection for our consumption, but as we sat waiting we looked longingly at the lemonade and Vimto.
“I’ve got to have a drink” I said.
“No no, you know you can’t” said Anne.
“But it’s Vimto, it’s in a bottle it’s been treated, it’ll be ok.”
“Well, you can do it if you like but I’m not!”
So I bought a bottle of Vimto and drank it, but Anne didn’t. On the way back to Calcutta, I got dysentery and Anne didn’t.
When we got back to Calcutta I was in quite a poor shape and I was immediately told I would have to go into hospital. I remember being in the wonderful Grand Hotel in Calcutta with a lovely room with mosquito nets on the bed and a big black and white tiled bathroom. I felt pretty ill, and once I saw a little mouse come up out of the drains into the room, but where normally I would have jumped up and screamed, I just lay there and thought oh… a mouse.
Off I was packed to hospital for a couple of weeks. Meantime, our company had dwindled to about four members as people perhaps became ill or, as in the case of Beryl our Soprano, were sacked. The remaining members were split up and put into different Companies and I remained in the hospital alone.
Anne came to say goodbye to me there, and we were both in tears because we had been through much together over quite a long period of time. I have to say I did not have the worst case of dysentery, not amoebic, and I was young and strong and I got through it. I thought, this is the only time in my life I have seen food and I don’t want it, and I did lose a lot of weight. When I came out I was two stones lighter and quite delighted, I thought a slim new me was great. I went into the ENSA Hostel, a lovely house in Calcutta. Major Jack Bontemps was in charge along with Bob Ayling and a gentleman who is still around in the business today, Mr. Phillip Hindon. The Major told me that they were running a band, and that there were personnel from the air force and the army involved and would I like to come and sing with the band?
“Oh that would be great, I’ve done that before.” I said
“You’ll have to do an audition” they said.
“ Ok, that’s fine” I said, so I went to the wonderful Garrison Theatre in Calcutta. The band were in the pit and I sang one of my favourite songs which I still sing to this day, Cole Porters Begin the Beguine. I asked the pianist if he knew it in my key, and he said yes they could do it, but the band were all rather grumpy - bands then and indeed now are not always too keen on singers!
Well I sang it and was told afterwards that yes, I could join the band. They were playing the RAF and Army bases in the surrounding areas, and I was pleased and thought it would be great. In fact it was to be one of the happiest periods in my life.
I Calcutta the department for entertainment for the servicemen was really quite good. We had various groups of musicians, including a string sections which could be added on to the dance band I was with, and we would call it the ENSA Dance Orchestra. We did some radio work on All India Radio, and I was thrilled to go into the recording studios and hear the Indian musicians playing there too. Our wonderful arranger was a Mr. Paul Zaroff, a Russian gentleman who created a fantastic show for us at the Garrison Theatre, based on the music of Strauss. There were the band, string section and four vocalists; Myself, a Tenor, Baritone and a wonderful Soprano who became terribly popular in London later called Margaret Burton.
Mr. Zaroff set the scene thus: The band were on stage in front of a façade of balconies covered with roses. The scena was called roses of the south and we all sang the different parts of the Strauss waltz music, solo or together - it was beautiful and I just wish I could recreate it today.
I had been all around India, from my arrival in June 1945 and coming to the end of the war with Japan in August when the atom bomb was dropped, but we continued to play whilst everyone got ready to pack up and go home, touring with the Dance Orchestra. I was so thrilled when Lesley Jiver-Hutchinson , a great trumpet player from the Caribbean who had played at the Café de Paris and all the famous clubs in London came out to India. He came to see our show and asked Major Bontemps if he could borrow me to tour with his band - they were going up to Assam and the Burma borders. The Major was none too keen but I was, and I went off with Lesley for three weeks which was fabulous. They were great musicians.
On my return the Dance Orchestra went to tour in the South and the great band leader Bobby Hind came out, who had played for royalty. He added his band and singers to our band and we had a great big band show which was fantastic.
During all of this, I met the man who was to become my husband, Ronnie Caryl, a great trumpet player. At first we were just great pals, just friends. He used to call me Flash, because he said I used to flash in and out of places so quickly he didn’t know where I was. We went up to Ranchi to do the Christmas season on the bases up there and we used to go out in a Gharry to see what the town was like and in those days I would never eat Indian food - I’m so sorry now that I didn’t because I love it now. If we went for a meal I would stick to an egg fu yung maybe, a simple dish. Then we would maybe go to the Cinema to see a film. But I remember thinking, my goodness, I think I’m in love, and I was.
That was a great turning point for me because I thought I was going to be marrying an American serviceman who’d already written to my Father to ask permission to marry me, but once I met Ronnie , my future husband, I thought no. I feel very differently now in this situation. I was sorry about it because my American boyfriend was such a nice person.
Any way, we did our tour and then it was time to be repatriated to Britain. Ronnie of course had to stay behind as part of the air force, he had a lot more to go through than I had to. Eventually I wound up in Bombay fourteen months after I had arrived in India, ready to embark on the ship the Sythia, to go back to Great Britain , and it was a very momentous journey. I remember so vividly the tea time on the ship. At four o’clock we had tea, but it wasn’t just a cup, it was a huge mug of milky sugary tea and we looked forward to it all day. We were packed into cabins together, women, wives and children sharing cabins. The children had there bathing time in the morning, using tubs in the cabins, and we went in after them! We took on some Italian prisoners of war that were going back to Naples. We sailed through the Indian Ocean and Port Said , Port Suez which was fantastic. To go to bed in the open Indian Ocean and look out of the porthole the next morning and see the sand on either side of you was amazing. The Italian prisoners of war were jumping for joy at the site of Naples, and they ran down the gangway when we docked and fell on their knees to kiss the ground. We couldn’t help but be caught up in this great excitement of these Italians being repatriated to their own country.
We then had to travel through the Bay of Biscay. We were all very sun tanned and used to the hot climate, but as we began to hit the colder weather which we hadn’t really experienced for a long time, we wondered if we could stand it.
Eventually we sailed into the port of Liverpool and were taken from there to London, where we went to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to hand in our uniforms, our shoes, our costumes and props and I was so sorry to see them go, but we were allowed to keep one thing which was a big khaki coloured grip bag.
So in July 1946, my war time memories come to an end.
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