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Rowland William Button's War Story - Chapter 2

by Rowland William Button

Contributed by 
Rowland William Button
People in story: 
Rowland William Button also known as Alfie Button
Location of story: 
Ceylon - Burma - India
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 December 2005




In January 1942 I went home for a week to say goodbye to my parents. They had moved to Newbourn during the time I was in the RAF. So it was to a strange village that I said goodbye. I didn’t know hardly anyone there.

Soon I was at West Kirby in the Wirral near Liverpool and of course all the guesses were that we were to embark on a troopship at Liverpool Docks. It was a bitterly cold winter and there was little heating in the wooden barrack blocks. If I remember correctly we had to unblock the roads because snowdrifts had been heavy. I remember too how we all had to line up about 2am one night in our birthday suits for a medical inspection. Then aboard a troop train and we were moving again. Where to? Not to Liverpool because the train went past there. On through the night and we eventually stop on the docks, at Gourock, on the Clyde near Glasgow.

We boarded a big passenger liner, it was the Stratheden. In peacetime it was used to carry passengers to India and the East. Now it was to be crowded full of troops. Later I was to find out from books that we were to join a ‘Winston Special’ convoy. In the Atlantic ocean at this time a big battle was going on. German ‘U’ boats (submarines) were sinking very many British ships with torpedoes and so instead of sailing on their own, several ships sailed together in a convoy and were protected by warships.

If you had travelled in a crowded troopship in wartime across into the Atlantic you would not want the experience a second time. Of course we still didn’t know where we were going. We were not allowed to send any letters and those who tried were all court-martialled. We were on ‘G’ deck — 7 decks down in the hold of the ship. We slept either on the floor — the bottom layer, or on the tables, which were the middle layer, or in hammocks over the tables. Which was the best to grab? It was not up in the hammocks. Most tried to grab a table bed. I had a hammock in the end — which turned out to be to my mind the best.

The food at first was good, we could even buy tinned fruit and chocolate but soon we did not fancy it. As we sailed out into the Atlantic everyone was seasick. The great liner went up and down in the stormy Atlantic like a bobbing cork. Can you imagine what it is like in a ship with thousands of people being sick — there’s one good reason for being in a hammock. At least people were not sick all over you. There was another problem — we had salt water to wash in. We had a special sort of soap but it didn’t help much. I remember very well being rather proud about not being sick. But not for long. Walking along one of the open decks I was ordered below and one of my first wartime jobs was to swill down all the hand basins and toilets that had been blocked by sick. So you can guess who was sick next. In the wartime the Air Force men were often called the Brylcream boys but there was not much glamour now.

Frequently the ships in the convoy changed course to avoid the U-boats. Frequently too we had boat drill, put on our life belts. It must have been terrible for the people on the troopships that were sunk. Thousands of troops in that wild Atlantic water. One night I was put on watch right on the front of the Stratheden. The ship ahead was another big liner — the Monarch of Bermuda I think and as the Atlantic swelled this ship seemed to disappear in the wave trough ahead.

None knew where we were going but eventually some read the stars and guessed our direction of travel. It seemed we were not going north to Russia but south towards Africa. We still had winter kit! This was some consolation for convoys to Russia had been subjected to much trouble from the U-boats and German warships.

Each day seemed very long, the journey tedious but eventually it became warmer as we journeyed further south. It was several days before everyone was excited — land was in sight. As we sailed nearer it was obviously a tropical country. We sailed into Freetown harbour. We all had to stay on the ship. It was fascinating to be in a tropical country for the first time. The natives crowded round the liner in little boats trying to sell us oranges which we were not allowed to buy in case they made us ill. But the natives were real divers and the troops threw coins into the water to make them dive. We didn’t stay in Freetown harbour long and off again we went on our journey to an unknown destination. Further south right round the Cape and then north again to Durban in South Africa — would you believe it, we were still wearing our winter RAF uniform. We stopped in Durban harbour for three days I think. Some bought khaki shorts for we were allowed ashore. We looked around Durban, the South African people were very kind. I was taken to a house for tea and for all the rest of the war one of the daughters sent me parcel's of socks and chocolate. I didn’t receive them all for I moved around so much.

But we were soon off again and this time it was a quick dash to Bombay in India. I think we had been at sea six to eight weeks for it must have been the end of March at least when we arrived at Bombay. Everyone on board was restless — were we to go on yet further? I cannot remember the exact timing but we did eventually find out we were bound for Rangoon in Burma — but the Japanese got there first. We had lost Singapore, and Malaysia, two great battleships had been sunk. It was a desperate time and moral was very low.

We marched off the ship and into the streets of Bombay and soon we were at Colaba Camp. Living in tented accommodation there was unease as to what was going to happen next. I shall always remember an Army Brigadier on a white horse who paraded us in the hot sun, told us he had never before seen such a scruffy lot. You see the Indian Army prided itself on its discipline and bearing and here was the RAF, some still in blue socks with khaki shorts and blue shirts and in no way was the RAF going to line up in a straight line for an Army Sergeant Major! We all wanted to get to the war-zone and do some real fighting. Were not the Japs nearing India?

But before a week was out, we were on a troopship again. This was a real troopship — the Devonshire.
We were sailing south again. No convoy this time, just one single warship to escort us. Some days later we arrived in Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — in Colombo, its capital city. It seemed a deserted capital for its harbour had been bombed and many inhabitants had fled to the hills. We were getting nearer to the war.

Now we found out what we were supposed to go, we had made some good guesses as to the nature of our task for the group of us consisted of wireless operators and radar personnel and we were to set up radar stations in Ceylon to warn of the approach of Japanese aircraft and ships. Radar was invented very near to where I had lived as a boy and it was one of the most important inventions of the wartime period. If you shout in a valley your voice comes back to you as an echo. Radar is like that, if you send a signal towards an aircraft, it hits the aircraft and with suitable equipment, you can receive the echo and measure how long it has taken to get there and back, thus calculating the distance. By similar means you can calculate the height and the direction of its aerial position.

I was to be the wireless operator for a radar station at Galle in southern Ceylon. It must have been one of the finest sites in the world for a RAF station. Overlooking Galle harbour, right on a hill, in super
scenery with a view stretching right across to the hills in central Ceylon. Down below us paths led to beaches where we could swim and laze about. We took over a house which we were told had been a girls school. We fitted it with electricity from a generator. Eventually I put in a pump to give us water from a well. The equipment we were to use as a radar station had been intended for a Dutch Cruiser or battleship but this had been captured by the Japanese in Java. Under the guidance of a Dutch Navy officer I built the radar tower — a wooden structure. It was surprising in wartime to find out you can do many things you thought impossible.

I said it was a beautiful place and it was but some problems arose. First of all most of us caught tinnea. You will not know what this is. When you live in a hot country you can have diseases we do not get in England and tinnea is a red rash which covers all the places where you perspire. It is very sore and makes life very uncomfortable. Then we all had a problem with some sort of pimples — mainly on our bottoms and the medical staff used to cut the tops of the pimples off with scissors and put on mentholated spirits. There were lots of tummy troubles. These were caused because we used to eat bananas and oranges and food that were contaminated. We didn’t have electric cookers, food was cooked by dripping oil from an oil drum and setting it alight. We cut petrol tins in half to make bowls for washing in. If I remember correctly during the time we were here the news from the war in North Africa was not good and some of us — particularly the married ones who had wives and children were wondering whether they would get home again. Letters didn’t arrive very often. So despite the lovely place we were in, all was not well. We slept on charpoys — a hessian sort of bed and there were a lot of bugs around.

We did identify some Japanese aircraft out to sea on occasions, not very often though. I would think in retrospect we had wasted our time. The Japanese did not come in strength. They were never to capture Ceylon and their warships turned away and they went home. Soon we were on the move again.

This time we were to move from one of the warmest spots in Ceylon to one of it’s coldest. But again a wonderful spot. Horton Plains high up about 7000 ft in the central hills of Ceylon. A nature reserve, with no road access, most of the radar station was carried in bits up the last 2000ft or so.

Horton Plains is a plateau, grass, rhododendron tress and wooded areas with wild pig. A lovely trout stream too. But very cold at night with a lot of mist. We built the radar station again but I cannot remember if we ever saw a single aircraft. The siting of the station must have been wrong. You waste a lot of effort in wartime!! One thing about Horton Plains I must tell you. When I was a boy I often used to follow around the cowman on the farm and one of his jobs was to keep the ram working which supplied water to the farm. A ram is a device which pumps water uphill from a dam and works by means of water pressure only. He often repaired the ram but never told me how it really worked. I probably never asked him. How I wished I had, because we had no water where we lived — the ram hadn’t worked for ages. I tried several times to get it to go so that we didn’t have to carry water in pails from the river. Believe it or not if you listen to Open University as I do sometimes you will find out how a ram really works. I found out about 45 year too late.
Life at Horton Plains was almost a holiday. We went pig hunting, had curries, went on long walks, went down the hills into the tea-plantations. It was so far away from the real war, the battles in the desert, in Burma and the bombing at home in England

We moved again and again. I will not bore you with the detail. To Kandaloya, to Challativi Muni, to Batticoloa and many places you hear in the news of Sri Lanka today. A lovely beautiful country now ruined by terrorist warfare and civil strife.

Then I left the radar stations and to my surprise as a mere corporal in the Air Force I found myself in charge of an airfield! It was only an emergency landing strip but aircraft did land there! I organised all the signals, kept diesels and generators running. Bought all the food, dug a well using explosives to blast the rock, didn’t find any water though. We eventually found water very near the seashore. The local people thought they could share it as well. They had a procession one evening to bless it. At first we thought they were to attack us.

There were monkeys, elephants, alligators and a lot of wild life around us. We had cadjan huts, cadjan is palm leaves woven into a covering. There were snakes and spiders in abundance. We lived on grapefruit and bread with dead weevils scattered in it. We did get some eggs too and sometimes someone would shoot a wild animal to eat. Some pilots would bring in things for us. We were a long way from the war still though we did have some frights. A submarine appeared off our beach. I still don’t know whether it was British or Japanese. Then a native arrived to say that foreign people were hiding in the jungle about 15 miles south. Fools as we were we took up our rifles and went to the scene. The invaders surrendered without a fight, even handed over their weapons. They were I think

Malays being trained by British troops to land in Japanese held Malaya. We did play a small part in the bombing raids on the Palembang oil fields in Java where the returning bombers had not enough fuel on board to get to their home base. Many of them landed in the sea, none at our emergency airfield (which incidentally required about two hundred labourers to stop the jungle growing again) as you went into the lane to the airfield there was storage shed for coffins. This was the first thing that greeted anyone coming to the airfield. They were still there when I left, I wonder if they were ever used — perhaps the ants ate them.

The war was still far away and I lost the opportunity to try to get there — I guess I thought it would be exciting. I was young; I still had not flown very much. There was no chance of getting back to England so I volunteered to join the Chindits who had been fighting in Burma. I was posted to Gwalior in India to join the RAF components of the Chindits. But as I was about to go, something happened which meant I nearly used one of those coffins.

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