- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ivor Walter Chappell
- Location of story:
- Kempston, London Docks, mid Atlantic, Blackfriars in London
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 April 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jenny Ford on behalf of Ivor Walter Chappell and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Christmas 1942, I had turned 18 in the October. Our Christmas's were poor things at that time, we were so lucky with what we had got. Our Christmas's were true and warm, family gatherings, no oranges, no bananas, nuts hard to come by, no crackers, very lucky to get a chicken for dinner, but we made the best of what we'd got. One thing that we had in abundance was family love. In 1942, this was to be my last Christmas at home for the next three years but who could tell what lay in the future? That Christmas, the thing which I remember most for some reason was the fact that Mum had lit the fire in the front room, a big cold and rather damp place, which would be at it's best by about evening. I can recall sister Doreen and younger brother Colin and me in there with Mum popping in and out to make the fire up every so often. It would be a very special occasion to use the front room in those days, they were only kept for special occasions. Maybe being Ivor's last Christmas at home could be classed as special?
I don't recall what we did but just being in there was special. Funnily enough I can remember my next three Christmas's a lot better!
In 1943 early on I got called up into the Royal Navy, so Christmas 1943 saw me as a Royal Navy gunner on board a merchant ship for ack ack purposes (anti-aircraft). We were known as D.E.M.S. (Defensive Equipped Merchant Ships) and that is where I served my three years. Christmas 1943 out ship, a 10,000 ton merchantman named "The Empire Spartan" had come into London Docks, Millwall area to unload the biggest part of our cargo into a giant silo, this was a few thousand tons of wheat. While we were there it was decided to fumigate the ship. This meant the whole ship had got to be evacuated, well we'f got the merchant crew signed off and gone home, they were all Londoners anyway. Cargo all gone, ship empty but now who is going to guard it? All the other gunners could get home rather easily except myself and a Scotsman. My journey would be about 60 miles and Jocks a very long way as you might guess! It was going to take about a day and a half from start to finish. So off went our pals to be with their loved ones on this special day, wishing Jock and myself all the best. And here came the fumigators, did the job and left. Flooding the ship with gas, goodbye rats, cockroaches and sundry other creepy crawlies!
Now it slowly dawned on me and us, we had no food, no shelter, we had our heavy coats to protect us but we'd got to patrol the gangway and all along the ship for at least the coming night and well into the next day, we hadn't even given toilets a thought!
Food? Jock had managed to get hold of something like a tin of peaches and a tin of pears I think. So I stood there, Jock went off to look round, we were in a flattened area apart from the silo and some buildings nearby, but a really desolate area.
It's Christmas Eve, yes I'm 19 years old, yes I did think of home, so near and yet so far! Yes, a lump in throat, my first Christmas away from home! In London docks on a bitterly cold day, sleeting in the wind. No Father Christmas here! Been gone nine months. Well, it could be a lot worse! Jock comes back, he calls me over, I walk towards him, over the way is a small backwater in which are tied up three or four old steel barges which ply on the river, one still has a wisp of smoke coming out of its small chimney on the stern. That'll do for us, not a soul about, no air raids, all is quiet. On to this barge we scramble down a small steel ladder and into a small scruffy cabin, a small donkey stove, still warm, cabin still warm, lovely, heaven! Jock says, "Let's eat our dinner." Two tins, oh no, oh no! No tin opener, good old Jock he's got his sailors knife on him, among the various things on it is a wonderful tin opener, so goodbye peaches and pears. Will it keep us going until about 18 hours or so if we are lucky? Then it's dark, no lights anywhere of course. Way over by the giant silo, just before it got too dark to see, we saw some people moving around, so we ambled over there. We found that these were workers on fire watch duty. The small cabin on the steel barge had begun to get real cold, all steel is not the warmest of things! So when these workers took us into their warm canteen we thought someone had smiled on us. Well, it was warm and dry and that was something. So out came the pack of cards, out came halfpennies, etc., brag or nap was the game. I didn't play, it got boring. So I said to Jock, "I'm off for a scout around," he, now enjoying himself, said, "OK." So, out I strolled, looked around. All is quiet so I kept walking, found some gates, can't remember if manned or not and out I went. On looking around in the dim light as I kept walking I came to a pub (of course!)it's open, in I got and I get my pint and I sit down. As long as I don't get caught I'm doing fine. But there then occurred something that has lived in my memory ever since. Some time later a little old gray haired lady was sitting near me, we got chatting and I told her my story of how I got to be there. She was very sympathetic, she said, "Are you telling me that's all you've had to eat? And it's Christmas!" I said, "Well, we've got to manage somehow until tomorrow sometime, they wouldn't be coming to clear the ship until around noon and then when we thing about it, we've got to wait for the gas to clear. Oh, boy, we really planned it good, didn't we?" Anyway this little old lady got to her feet, she said, "Wait there my boy. I'm just nipping out but I'm coming back, don't go anywhere." She must have lived nearby, for back she came in a short while and laid a package in front of me, "There you are my boy, you're looking after us now it's my turn to do something for you. We owe you boys a big debt that we can never repay!" I felt good. I unwrapped the package. In it were some bread and cheese sandwiches! Oh boy, oh boy, her rations given to me. I can still feel it to this day. Yes, I ate them, payment, no never, didn't want anything! Now there's a Christmas memory!
Back to the canteen once more, check the ship, all is OK still. As I gazed all around I thought of my Christmas's past and I thought of Christmas now, this bl.... war! In the canteen the card school was slowing down. I went over to some chairs that were lined up against the wall, managed somehow to lay full length along five or six of them and I then fell asleep. Next thing I knew, the nightshift were going home, the new day shift were in, all clean and fresh, chatting and laughing. Jock and me, winking and blinking out into the cold frosty morning feeling like something the cat had dragged in as they used to say!
Now we have to show ourselves, icy cold or not. So out we are just waiting and waiting. Finally along came the fumigators, gasmasks on, onto the ship they go, doors opened wide, portholes open, etc. Off they come, all done, a nice rat free ship now, no more cockroaches in the soup. Nobody allowed on board for the next hour or two, that includes Jock and me, so now it's more waiting for us. Time goes by and gradually some of our lads come back and an officer or tow, then it's back on board again. Oh, that gassy smell, into our clothesm everywhere, it was still with us for days! So that was my Christmas of 1943. But when I know all these years later how some people spent their Christmas's, I certainly consider my 1943 Christmas one to be remembered and lucky to do as we did, I certainly could count my blessings!
I feel so lucky to be able to remember all these things and yet I can't for the life of my remember Jock, my partner in our 1943 Christmas, just that he was Jock! But that's how wars are.
Now it's onto 1944 Christmas and what a time that was! My 1944 Christmas was spent in a 30 ship convoy in mid Atlantic, a lovely place to be! We'd survived a 90 mile an hour storm of about three days when we didn't know if we were going to come through or not, a very frightening experience especially to a 19 year old landlubber like me. The ship pitched and tossed and you literally took your life in your hands to go up top deck! We were an empty ship convoy that made it much worse, bound for U.S.A. In a convoy and at a time like that to be empty, it couldn't have been much worse, you could see half of the keels of some ships as the stern went down into the sea. But one morning we got up and all was more or less back to normal, the escorts were shepherding blown off their course ships back into line. We didn't realise it but Christmas was approaching, we never looked at calendars, we didn't need them, our days and worlds were watchkeeping 8 'til 12, 12 'til 4, 4 'til 8, round the clock, 24 hours a day on the stern, in a gunpit amidships or up on the bridge in a gunpit. That was our time and our life. Between times we slept and ate, washed our clothes and ourselves or cleaned the guns! Somebody somewhere had I suppose mentioned that Christmas was getting near but out in the Atlantic would be a bit too far for Santa Claus to come, so it would be just another day to us with our watchkeeping duties, anti-submarine watches, etc. I know I was sitting down in our quarters in the stern when someone came rattling down the steel ladder shouting "Come up on deck, come and look at this. You'll never see anything like this ever again!" We thought what the hell is he going on about? We all scrambled up the ladder and out onto the deck, what a sight to see! He was right, coming down between the lines of ships was an American destroyer, but this wasn't just any old destroyer, it was garlanded in pretty decorations, all up the masts, all around the bridge, signs saying "A Merry Christmas". The best bit was, and I'll never forget it, Father Christmas in full regalia standing proud, up on the bridge on a raised platform, waving his beard at us and shouting through a megaphone, "Ho, ho, ho, a merry Christmas everyone." The icing on the cake that brought a lump to your throat was that nice and clear across the water came the sound of a choir singing, Holy Night. Absolutely wonderful! Old, hard bitten old salts just stood there tears running down their faces. To me that was out of this world! That was my 1944 Christmas. A few days later we tied up alongside in New Jersey, USA to a foot of snow and temperatures of below zero, but it was still Christmassy to us. Until they turned our heating off for three or four days to affect some repairs, but that's another story! So I guess we all went ashore and made hay while the sun shone so to speak!
A by the way memory, it was here that I went into a shop to stock up on underwear, the girl asked me for my waist measurement, it was at that wonderful time 32", nowadays, it's best not to ask! On that Christmas day I've got an idea we may have had chicken for dinner. I certainly don't recall any Christmas pudding. Now that's a Christmas that I've never forgotten.
Now for 1945, again a mite different you might say. I was then stationed at an old depot ship at Blackfriars in London, on the Thames, H.M.S. Chrysanthemum, lovely name. My watch was stuck on board for Christmas. On Christmas Day we all went next door onto H.M.S."President" another old ship converted into a depot ship. Here for a beautiful breakfast and dinner as well. Us ordinary seamen were waited on by various officers and Petty Officers, an old tradition that for some reason was carried on over the years. The feeling was great, more happy faces, discipline relaxed, was worth waiting for! So that about concludes my four Christmas's which to me, funnily enough as I now look back, are memories worth keeping and remembering, of people and bygone days when we never knew about tomorrow!
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