- Contributed by
- Sgt Len Scott RAPC
- People in story:
- Sgt Len Scott
- Location of story:
- Between Liverpool and Algiers
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 April 2004
This story continues from Inside the War Office
A mysterious coastline...
At the beginning of September 1942 Captain Vallentine told me that he - and I - would now work in Allied Force Headquarters. The place swarmed with Americans. One day, summoned by my Captain, I found him studying a map which he carefully concealed when I entered. On his desk lay a Service revolver. 'How would you like a trip overseas?' he enquired. Was I being offered a choice? I knew the question to be mere theatre, like the revolver and the map. I gave the reply he expected. I was still billeted at home in Warlingham (no barrack accommodation) and went home to my wife Minna reflecting upon that map. I had caught a glimpse of a coastline with some islands in the foreground. These, I speculated, might be the Channel Islands and the coast-line that of France. The long-awaited Second Front? Minna took my news well. We had never thought that this strange 'time out of war' would persist... and I would get a week's 'embarkation leave.'
For the next week or two I shuttled between War Office and A.F.H.Q, my duties at the former place still being important - paying His Majesty's servitors-in-uniform and Fleet Street's war correspondents. My work at A.F.H.Q. shed no light upon our destination. At home I studied my atlas and came up with an alternative. There was a similar group of islands off the North African coast and it was in North Africa that Rommel and Montgomery were slugging it out. Both places looked unhealthy but Normandy looked much the nastier. One of my colleagues approached me in the men's room at War Office. 'I hear you've been posted for overseas. Do you know if anyone else here will have to go?' But it seemed that I was the only sacrificial lamb. On the day I left F.9. I was handed a farewell card in the shape of a wheel, the spokes containing the signatures of all my colleagues. I have it still but many of the signatures are too florid for me to decipher and memory serves only to resurrect a few: Staff-Sergeant Pett, Sergeant Peyton, Corporals Titmus, Chubb, Grossmith, Russell, Speed and Parkinson (an ex-Manchester Guardian man) who added 'wish I were coming with you). In the centre: 'Good luck and bon voyage from your colleagues in Room 443.'
Preparations and farewells
Work at A.F.H.Q. grew more intensive and sometimes, late at night, I would cross Berkeley Square. I heard no nightingales but in Piccadilly there were little circles of torchlight on the pavements, a glimpse of high heels and stockings, the glow of cigarettes - night-birds of another specie. In the time left to us there were practical matters - I gave Minna a Power of Attorney, left a letter for my mother explaining in detail the financial arrangements I had made for her and decided that my kit-bag would contain Volume Two of Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' (the section containing Emperor Julian's history and about whom I was attempting to write an historical novel), an anthology of my favourite poetry and Plato's 'Phaedo'. The remaining trees in our valley were tinged with gold as we took our walks with Ib, our Scottish terrier. But now I knew my destination. At last I was treated as the confidential clerk I was supposed to be. We were heading for North Africa where Algeria and Morocco were still in the hands of the pro-Hitler Vichy government. We might be opposed. I told Minna; no-one else.
My feelings? Fear, overlaid by excitement. The latter surprised me. I recognised it - the same bristling of the back-hairs as when Minna and I set off for a climbing holiday in Austria or the Dolomites, long ago. There was something claustrophobic about life in England. Or was I merely being swept along by the mass-emotion I had always distrusted? There came the day - Wednesday, 28 October, when Minna, Ib and I stood on the platform at Warlingham Station and said our last goodbyes. I leaned from the window and the small woman and the small dog receded...
The Duchess of Richmond
I had to report to a Transit Camp in London. Kitted out like a Christmas-tree - greatcoat, rifle, two blankets, back-pack, webbing, respirator and kitbag I, and a host of similar grotesques, boarded a train at Addison Road Station near the Olympia Exhibition Hall. We set off at ten pm and after a night of discomfort and many stops-and-starts arrived at Liverpool. Marched down to the docks, we boarded the S.S. 'Duchess of Richmond' of some 22,000 tons - a duchess who had seen better days. How many of us? We guessed at six thousand. We slept below in one of several vast holds, made vaster by the removal of bulkheads revealing acres of rusting steel and Laocoon-like piping. We lay head to toe in slung hammocks, close as the men in Nelson's navy, we landlubbers being instructed in their slinging and disposal by grinning, friendly sailors. Below the hammocks were men sleeping on palliasses laid on the mess tables. It was necessary to empty my bladder fully before sleep. To attempt reaching the 'heads' during the night might involve stepping upon someone's face in the dim, blueish light. The only way out was via narrow and uncompanionable 'companion-ladders.' Most of us reflected upon the effect of a torpedo. We were a varied lot - infantrymen predominating and accents bewildering. If any Pay Corps lads were present I could see none.
We sailed. North Africa our next landfall. It was not. We awoke in Scotland in Gourock Harbour. Around us were many ships. We were a small part of 'Operation Torch'.
'Dear Minna. Last night was all hurry - and five minutes to catch the post. Tonight there is a little more time, but not much! Well, I suppose I will settle down but I shall be glad when the trip is over and one can move about without falling over everyone's kit. Still, it is an experience! I find that the two stripes upon my arm let me in for a considerable amount of responsibility. But I can still remember our happiness with a quiet mind - it is a part of me that no-one can invade with heavy boots. And thus it will always be. Make everything ready for our reunion. Be it one year or five, I feel that one day things will be sane again and in peace. This may be the last time you will hear from me for a long time but do not despair - I will do my best to survive! Kind regards to Ib and as for yourself - my dearest love. LEN.'
Later: 'Dear Girl: Written in great haste: Well, we are off now. Everything is too confused for me to write much. It will settle down later. Food is good. Look after yourself, sweetheart, I love you so. Perhaps it won't be so long as we think. LEN.'
Convoy on the move
Many ships sailed with us through the mist-clad Western Isles and from one of them a song drifted across the water. Welshmen were singing 'Land of My Fathers'. I thought we would be escorted by a couple of battleships, but we were led by a corvette. I had seen nothing of Captain Vallentine since embarkation. One officer I knew, Lieutenant Birkett, looked round our teeming ant-hill, muttered, 'Appalling! Something must be done.' and vanished. On the third morning a staff-sergeant appeared on one of the companionways and bawled for silence. 'Are there any shorthand-typists here?' My hand shot up and I bawled, equally loudly: 'Here!' Amazingly, no other claimant surfaced. 'Report to the Orderly Room corporal!'
The Orderly Room was on the boat-deck - a place of light and fresh air. I had to receive dictation, type and duplicate all the many orders and regulations concerning shipboard life and discipline. E.G. The glow of a single cigarette on deck after dark could bring a torpedo. The offender would suffer the Army's equivalent of being hung, drawn and quartered. Using the office typewriter I wrote:
'At Sea. Dear Girl, We have just been notified that a mail will be taken off the ship at our first port of call... I have settled down quite well to the life here - I am now working in the ship's Orderly Room and find that the employment makes the voyage seem to go much faster. The weather has been good and has developed in me an appetite such as I never dreamed of! Things run more smoothly now, the only grouse being that it is difficult to get a wash - water economy. Everyone is speculating wildly as to our destination - I think every portion of the civilised globe has been mentioned.
'Don't worry about me. I think I shall succeed in making myself comfortable wherever I go - and I have my book to write, you know. It was pretty beastly to leave you on Wednesday morning. You looked so eminently attractive and even the tyke seemed to sense the dismal occasion. When you see mother tell her I am getting along all right and will write at the earliest opportunity. Food is good, but dining in Mess with turbulent youngsters is very trying. My routine is simple: rise at 5.30 or 6, breakfast at 7, work in the Orderly Room until 11.30, then lunch. More work until 5 when we break off for tea. Bed at 8. Well, here's to my next letter which I hope will be from dry land. Goodnight, sweetheart.'
From Inferno to Paradiso
Soon after typing this I requested leave to sleep in the Orderly Room. Request granted. I had mirrored, in a small way, Dante's ascent from Inferno to the Paradiso, snuggling down on a couch within my two blankets. There were no submarine-alerts, no aircraft targets for our two ack-ack guns mounted forward... though the 'Duchess' nearly foundered. Every ten or fifteen minutes the escorting corvette signalled a 'toot-toot' and the whole convoy changed course - zig-zagging. I was sitting on deck with another corporal when I remarked: 'I don't know much about seamanship but it looks to me as if we are about to be rammed.' Some way astern another troopship appeared to be aiming its bows at the 'Duchess' amidships. Suddenly... much hooting, shouting, bell-ringing, shuddering and propellor-threshing. Rumour had it that our helmsman had turned to port instead of starboard and placed us in the path of this oncoming menace. It was also rumoured that our helmsman was placed under close arrest. Would he have to 'walk the plank'? What was certain was that we were relegated to the rear of the convoy - the most likely victim of any lurking submarine. None lurked.
A change of course
Each evening we sailed straight into the s sunset and some hoped for a Canadian landfall. I knew better and one evening the sun was behind us. 'All ranks' were assembled to be told over the Tannoy of our destination - Algeria, in North Africa. The 'first wave' had gone ashore yesterday, 8 November and was firmly established. Field-Marshall Montgomery had broken through Rommel's battle-line and the Germans were retreating towards Tunisia.... 'and towards Algeria,' gloomed our pessimists. Nothing was said about French opposition and months passed before I discovered that the Allies had suffered many casualties at Casablanca and that the Navy had been in action against French warships.
We passed Gibraltar in darkness and then, glorious, saw a city blazing with lights - a sight none had seen since 1939. It was Tangier. Some men sobbed a little - one a Northumberland Fusilier whose speech was as impenetrable to me as Swahili. Next day there were depth-charges from our corvette as we passed Oran. Further in, lay wrecked French warships sunk by the British Navy in July.
Life on board
Apart from such incidents the voyage had been long and boring. We had queued for everything - queues which stretched around the entire deck-space: for cigarettes, tea, 'entertainment' and, with desperation, for the latrines. We had all been issued with 'sea-soap' because ordinary soap would not lather in sea-water - and sea-water was what issued from the ablution taps. There was plenty of time for thought. Death... less likely for me than for the soldiers I helped to pay, soldiers who were tackling Rommel's Afrika-Korps away to the east. The Allies would win the war or lose it whatever I and my typewriter might do. Conscience? I had enlisted voluntarily and the Army had decided what duties I must perform. I performed them. Perspective. I worked hard and well, but could always retreat into an inviolate part of my mind. I was more fortunate than Minna. She had expected much from the A.T.S. and had been disillusioned. I had expected nothing from the Army and was often surprised by undreamed of good fortune.
It was on my 29th birthday that I saw Algiers. How beautiful it looked in the clear, hard sunlight, the white buildings stretching around a bay, buildings separated by groves of cypress and palm. How surprised were most of us at its unlooked-for size and outward splendour... western architecture for the most past with a few minarets as Islamic exclamation-marks. All that day we stood off from the shore until the white walls turned blueish and the lengthening shadows crept across the city. We docked at last but not until the following morning did we make physical contact with Africa - on Friday, 13 November! That floating white purity when seen far off, became a nasal offence. Unit by unit we awaited our turn to disembark while Arab urchins wandered up and down the quay with baskets of fruit. They got a golden harvest - the fellows showered money for the chance of getting a badly-aimed orange, fruit so long denied to wartime Britain.
During the voyage I had discovered other Pay Corps personnel - all strangers to me. For some two hours, fully kitted out (including greatcoats) we queued to disembark. For much of the time I stood far below decks, a thin hot-to-the-touch metal wall between me and the engine-room. The flurry of getting off the ship - the seemingly inextricable muddle that somehow sorted itself out, the lugging of heavy cases back and forth on the quay, the loss of tempers... and what were these rather small wooden boxes whose weight seemed disproportionate to their size and which had to be guarded with our (unloaded) rifles at the ready? They contained gold ingots to be deposited in the Banque ds l'Algerie as backing for the Allied Military paper money we had brought. We were relieved of our treasure by another armed company with a truck. There was a bevy of senior officers. Gold rides; we march.
An exchange of courtesies
We march into the city, sweating, full kit, rifles, greatcoats, blankets and kitbags. Trucks roar past us carrying American soldiers in relaxed postures, some smoking cigars. They jeer at we foot-sloggers - the 'goddam (Oedipal) Limeys'. We respond with two-fingered salutes. This is my first encounter with our allies apart from their 'brass' at AFHQ London. That night we Pay Corps lads slept on a school's tiled floor (rubber groundsheets and blankets) after a meal of tinned steak and kidney pudding interrupted by an air-raid alert and the sound of one bomb dropping. We continued with our dessert - tinned suet pudding swimming in golden syrup. The temperature was 100 Fahrenheit.
Our food had come in wooden crates containing one day's rations for 15 men - or 15 days for one man. Cigarettes, soap, toilet paper were all within as was a curious metal contraption containing what looked like a solid block of candle-grease. This when ignited would set water-filled mess-tins a'boil. We would learn that these were called Tommy-cookers - a name which, appallingly, became a common word for some of our more vulnerable tanks facing Rommel.
Our sleep was hardly disturbed by another puny German air-raid which I suspected was no more than a reconnaissance. What disturbed me was stomach-cramp (muscular, I comforted myself). Morning came with officers and a Bedford three-tonner. We climbed aboard and after a kaleidoscopic view of the city and its inhabitants - black, brown and white - roared into open country... westward. Where now?
The story continues in My Billets in Algiers.
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