- Contributed by
- CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
- People in story:
- James Foster-Turner
- Location of story:
- Jerusalem to England
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 June 2005
In 1944, aged 10, I was living in Jerusalem. My 16 year old brother was at school in England. I had not seen him since 1939.
My father was a government official and had to continue working in Palestine but with my mother and sister I was trying to get back to England. We first attempted to get home in 1942 by trying to get a ship from Durban, SA. However, we only got as far as Kenya before returning to Palestine.
The authorities responsible for moving families of government officials played everything very close to their chests on giving any information that might possibly get into enemy hands. We were offered a place on a ship leaving in a few hours but my mother said it was impossible to be ready in that time. So we didn’t go on that ship. Some of our friends did. It was bombed and set on fire by German planes from Syria. Our friends lost their possessions and arrived back in Jerusalem, some with no clothes, wrapped in Red Cross blankets.
My mother persuaded the authorities that she could be trusted so they gave her a couple of days notice to wind up the family affairs. The ship we got on was a Cunard Fleet ‘Three-Funnel’ Liner “Britannic” that had been converted into a troop ship, but some passengers were accommodated in the former First Class. There were troops on board but we didn’t know if they were returning to England on leave or going somewhere else to fight.
We didn’t know what the route would be or even if England was to be our destination. We set off West, without deviation, straight down the Mediterranean through the Straights of Gibraltar. At a couple of points we picked up some large merchant ships and a destroyer.
When we were off the south coast of France someone spotted, about three or four miles away, on the horizon, a great number of ships of all kinds. Everyone was called out on deck to look but this seemed to cause a big hub-bub. The next thing we knew our little escort destroyer shot off between us and the flotilla at great speed producing great white bow waves and incredible black smoke coming from it’s funnel. We didn’t think too much about it at the time but it was buzzing back and forward creating a very effective smoke screen. By next morning the destroyer had returned to its task of circling round and around the convoy which now included even more ships, just like a sheep dog herding sheep.
After 7days of travelling West and watching the sun rising over the stern and setting over the bows day after day some grown ups speculated that we must be going to America. But before we could get in sight of land we suddenly turned ‘right’ and started steaming north. We did this for another 7 days. Each day it grew colder and colder and when flakes of snow started to fall thick jumpers and coats were brought out of the suitcases. By this time we thought we must be going to Canada because there was nothing else ‘up there’!
But after 7 days we did another turn ‘right’ to sail East. In hindsight we must have been off the coast of Ireland. There was a sudden emergency drill and everyone had to go to their emergency stations with whatever they could grab and their life belts. The crew came among us handing out little aluminium water bottles to fit into the pocket on the life jacket. We also had a lamp fitted to the shoulder and a whistle on the end of a lanyard. Someone of course tried out the whistle only to be quickly reprimanded. The next moment it felt as though we had run aground on a pebble beach because there was an incredible rumbling, roaring, bubbling kind of sound. This caused many passengers to gasp and scream but that soon died down and we suddenly noticed one of ‘our’ destroyers way out in the distance had behind it an immense beautiful fountain of water. The rumbling, roaring and bubbling happened again. It was a depth charge, we’d missed the ‘fountain’ of the first one. It must have been 3 miles away, what could it be like in a submarine, close to a detination?
After our three week voyage we sailed down the wide Mersey estuary taking notice of the guns in the sea-forts ready to stop any attack. The ship dropped anchor but we just sat there and sat there. Many passengers went to see the captain to ask if they could contact families in England but he was full of excuses of why they couldn’t, ‘The land line’s broken’ or ‘The whatsit’s not working’ was all they got. The real reason was that no one was allowed to contact anyone anywhere in the world even if it was to make arrangements for the family. We sat there all day, meals were served on time, the ship carried on being a ship and we carried on being passengers. By the following morning everything had changed, there were tenders along side collecting luggage. The troops disembarked and we were evacuated very quickly and ‘landed’ on the quayside in Liverpool. My mother then had to figure out how to get down to the South West of England.
The day that we arrived in the Mersey, the 6th of June 1944 turned out to be D-day and the reason we hadn’t been allowed to disembark or contact our families was because we had seen the mock invasion fleet in the Mediterranean! We had also traversed quite a lot of the Atlantic so we were in possession of important information about ship movements and our convoy that anyone with hostile intentions would be glad to have.
We arrived after a round about route in Devon and the house where my brother was staying but he hadn’t yet arrived. We sat and waited for him. Because of the war we had not seen him for 5 years! The door opened and in came this tall, thin, willowy young man looking very serious and grown up. He was 16 years old. There was a quiet moment, then lots of chatter, then another quiet moment. To me it was wonderful to have a big brother. We were going to have wonderful fun and games. I was imagining all the exciting things that I was now going to be able to do. It didn’t occur to me at the time what a painful experience it was for my mother and brother. Looking back I can picture the look on my mother’s face, and on my brother’s face when they were confronted one another like that. My brother has told me since that all he wanted to do was run away and think. He obviously knew he had a family but he had never been sure whether he was ever going to see us again. The war could quite easily have wiped him or us out. He felt that he’d missed out on 5 years attention from our parents and he was a bit envious of me and my sister who had enjoyed a normal family life. He’d spent his teenage years with elderly grandparents and not been able to do ‘normal’ teenage things without much restraint and circumspection.
Many families suffered from experiences like ours and many much, much worse!
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