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15 October 2014
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At Sea in Wartimeicon for Recommended story

by Wymondham Learning Centre

Contributed by 
Wymondham Learning Centre
People in story: 
Christine Sidell (née Kohr), Edward Sidell, Don Morgan
Location of story: 
Southern Rhodesia, South Africa, the Atlantic, Scotland, Norfolk
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3992899
Contributed on: 
03 May 2005

Christine Sidell SRN

I was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, (now Harare, Zimbabwe) in 1921. I always wanted to be a nurse and in May 1939 at the age of eighteen I began training in Bulawayo hospital. War was declared in September the same year.

In 1940 the RAF came to Rhodesia to form the Rhodesian Air Training Group. In 1941 one of my former patients, an airman, introduced me to a new arrival from Egypt. Ted Sidell had spent the previous four years in Cairo on secondment to the British Military Mission as flying instructor to the Royal Egyptian Air Force. My father insisted that I complete my nursing training so it was in 1943, when I qualified, that Ted and I were married.

When Ted became Chief Ground Instructor at RAF Guinea Fowl in Gwelo in the centre of the country we moved to Selukwe, a small town about twenty miles from Gwelo. We lived in a hotel in Selukwe and I worked at the hospital there.

At the end of 1944 Ted was posted back to Britain, and of course I went too.

Ted had left England in 1937 and didn’t see it again until 1945. He was shocked and dismayed at the change wrought by the war. We had to find somewhere to live, rationing was in force and England was cold, grey and unfamiliar. Our life in Africa was over. Ted was made Adjutant at RAF Hullavington, Wiltshire, the base of the Empire Flying School (and later the Red Arrows), which was another shock. In Egypt and Africa he had been training pilots to fly Tiger Moths and Oxfords, and was unfamiliar with modern aircraft. But that was ahead of us, six weeks away across Atlantic waters patrolled by German U-boats.

December 1944 was the last Christmas I was to spend in Rhodesia. My parents, sisters Marion and Rosemary, an aunt and uncle I went to Hunyani Hotel for a family celebration. It was a very happy time.

In January I left to join Ted in Capetown. While waiting for our ship to arrive we stayed with an aunt and uncle I had not seen since I was a child. We enjoyed our time in Capetown immensely. Fourteen pounds of grapes cost only a shilling. Uncle Sidney made us shriek with laughter at his tall stories. We met a lot of other people waiting to go on the ship. I went swimming at Blouberg, where the beach was lovely but the water frigid. My aunt showed me how to pluck and draw a chicken, which proved a useful skill when we were first in England and pheasant (and rabbit) shot by Ted were a welcome part of our diet.

We departed at the beginning of March 1945. Our ship was the P. & O. liner “Canton,” manned by Lascars. She was designed to take 600 people. We sailed with 2, 600 on board. Surrounded by the bustle of boarding I stood on deck watching people throwing streamers from the dock. A band was playing. A great cheer arose from all the “boys” on board who were going home. I looked down, and saw that without my noticing it the ship had moved away from the dock. An inch, then two inches, of water separated us, and I thought, “Gosh — I can’t get off this ship!” We sailed out into the Atlantic and the unknown.

Ted had a troop deck to look after. I was in a cabin with eleven others — women and teenage girls. We were fortunate to have a porthole, and access to the deck. When I first went into the cabin and saw five double bunks packed closely together along the sides, I quickly bagged the top bunk on the one placed across the cabin, thinking, “at least I won’t suffocate here.” It was a decision I rued later.

Because the decks had to be kept clear there was nowhere to sit down except in the dining room and lounge.

Don Morgan, whom I knew, had the cabin next-door. We knew many people on board. They were mostly troops, but there were some civilians including mothers with young children. Ted and I were the only married couple.

Water supplies were restricted. We had two hours of fresh water a day, which must have been hard for mothers with small children to wash for. We had lovely hot baths in salt water. Each person was allowed a small bowl of fresh water to rinse with, to prevent the salt damaging the skin. As we’d been advised before boarding we each took a thermos flask, which we filled with hot water at breakfast and tried to make last the day. Ted and I met at the gun turret every morning to have a hot drink together. One day as I was removing the cork from my flask it popped up forcefully and flew out over the side of the ship. As I watched it hit the water a sailor went past and said, “That’s it — gone forever!” It was then I realised that there was no going back, and that one must take the consequences of one’s decisions. It was a big moment for me. I’ve been able to come to terms with a great deal in life because of that cork.

Ted had to bring his troops up from below two or three times a day for air. At other times they had to stay below. Officers and civilians were always allowed onto the top deck and Ted and I spent most of the day there.

Life on board was governed by rules. It was a dry ship, and there were strict penalties for anyone found with alcohol. We were not allowed to be parted from our life jackets, (nicknamed “Mae Wests” after the buxom actress). It was made clear to us that if we fell overboard, the ship would not stop to pick us up, and that if we had to use the lifeboats and fell out, no great effort would be made to save us. We were forbidden to throw anything, even a match, over the side, in case it alerted a U-boat. Passage from the inside to the outside of the ship was restricted by a maze of wooden screens. These were principally to prevent any light escaping from inside during the blackout, and possibly to minimise water or loose objects getting in. There was always a sailor on guard duty at the exit.

We had everlasting boat drill. We had to head for our cabins “at the double” when the alarm bells rang and a drill was announced over the Tannoy. One day I heard the alarm sound but didn’t hear the announcement that it was a drill. When I reached the cabin I heard guns firing and shells falling on the deck. Two of my school friends had been lost at sea and I was horrified at the prospect of being trapped inside if the ship went down. I told myself I had to get out on deck, where I could at least reach the water and swim. I ran through the maze of screens but the sailor on duty at the exit wouldn’t let me out. I had a moment of sheer panic and then almost fainted with relief when I was told that it was just a drill. The guns had been fired as part of the practice, which they sometimes, but not always, were.

Six days out of Capetown the ship’s engines failed just as we encountered a pack of U-boats. We were a sitting target, but they were apparently intent on reaching a specific destination and left us alone. We limped into Freetown, Sierra Leone, a river port where a big boom was towed behind the ship as we entered to close the river mouth and protect it from U-boats. We were not allowed ashore. A man with D.Ts. caused by the withdrawal of alcohol tried to jump overboard. I don’t know what happened to him. We stood on deck looking at the palm trees on shore and watching men diving for money.

“You’re going to Liverpool! Throw a sixpence!” they shouted. Of course no one had told us where we were going but they claimed to have special powers.

We crept along to Gibraltar. I occupied myself doing sewing and mending for everyone. We played “Newmarket,” (a card game) and ‘”Housie-Housie” (bingo) on deck. There was a blackout every night, the seamen going round at 5pm putting up battens on all the portholes.

We were tied up at Gibraltar for a week. The first thing everyone did was work out the quickest way to the nearest pub. The food was good, especially the bread. To deter enemy submarines, while we were in harbour depth charges were dropped from dawn to dusk, sometimes so close as to be terrifying. The whole ship would shake from the blast and the lights dim.

We left Gibraltar with a large escort of Destroyers and headed up towards Ireland. On the second evening out there was an explosion behind us and a huge plume of water shot up. Someone said “That’s the end of one of the escort.”

On first boarding the ship everyone had been required to fill in a form stating his or her particular skills and agreeing to work if necessary. Now I was called on to do night duty in the ships hospital. I was put in charge of a woman who was very ill, and who had once been one of my patients in Bulawayo. (Sadly, she died just as we reached Britain.) But my stint of duty was short-lived because I became ill myself. The weather became awful and the further we went the worse it got. This was when I learnt my mistake in choosing the bunk at a right angle to the others, because it was particularly affected by the rolling of the ship and I was terribly seasick. I looked at myself in the mirror and even the whites of my eyes were green.

There were terrific storms. The seas became huge. At times we were at an angle of 290 — 33 0 would have been enough to roll us over. One minute a destroyer was visible on the crest of a wave, the next it disappeared completely. How the cooks worked is beyond me. I believe they had box-shaped guides to prevent utensils sliding off stoves and worktops. In the dining room the stewards had to bend backwards to keep their balance. Someone vomited onto a table and a large napkin was simply whipped over the top of the mess and serving continued. Lots of people were ill. The Lascars climbed into the crow’s nest to look for Germans, but the huge seas kept us safe from the U-boats.

Because so many people were ill we ran out of saline. When a serious accident occurred medical supplies had to be passed across from a destroyer, hauled across with an officer in a breeches buoy on a line slung between the two ships. I believe it’s called “shooting a line.” It was very exciting to watch as the destroyer had to come close alongside in heavy seas. The supplies were for an airman whose skull had been fractured by the rising deck when he got into a fight with another man in rough seas. Unfortunately he died and was buried at sea only days from the U.K. It seemed very sad that his body could not have been kept for burial on land. But it was sewn into a canvas sack and the ship stopped for one minute while it was slid down a plank into the sea.

During the rough weather we were not allowed onto the outer deck for air because of the danger of being washed off. One day Ted and I went up to the dining room to sit down, just in time to see the grand piano slide across the room, followed by the tables and chairs. They were all smashed. It was terrible.

The next night we came into the Clyde and docked at Gourock. In the morning I looked out at the land that was to be my new home — cold, dull, and misty.

We stayed on board the whole day. I had a hat with a broad, painted brim that I had been glad of during the voyage, as there was no other protection from the sun. I threw it over the side and watched it float away down the Clyde. “I’ll never need that again,” I thought.

We were disembarked and packed onto a train. The men stood and allowed the women to have the seats. Ted and I took it in turns to sit. It was bitterly cold. My feet felt frozen. We travelled to Edinburgh and then on to London. In the middle of the night the train stopped and there was an air raid. It seemed like a never-ending journey of terror.

When we arrived in London Ted and I said goodbye to our friend Don. We lost touch with him after that. We took a taxi to Liverpool Street Station and a train to Eccles Road station in Norfolk, where Ted’s family lived. Ted had described it to me as hardly a station at all — just a little halt on the line. When we arrived the station was alive with Yanks and prostitutes. They were running about the station like ants. Ted was horrified. His quiet little corner of England had been overrun. We went to the cottage to meet his parents and sister. His family was very kind to me.

At Easter I was taken to Catholic Mass at the Base. We rode bikes. I had a rather nice hat, and as we rode into the base all the Yanks started singing “In Your Easter Bonnet.” It was lovely. Like being in a Hollywood movie.

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