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Torpedoed while Travelling with Ensaicon for Recommended story

by ensagirl

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Catherine Lovatt
Location of story: 
England, Europe and the Middle East
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 November 2005

I joined ENSA early in 1943 never having played professionally before. It was an organisation assigned to entertain people engaged in the war effort. This involved munitions workers, hospitals, WVS, home front and the armed forces. ENSA was short for Entertainments National Service Association though to many who had seen a show it was known as "Every Night Something Awful"! Our headquarters was Drury Lane, and after my audition as a pianist I was sent a letter enclosing travel vouchers to Cheltenham where I was told I was joining a small concert party touring various munitions and aircraft factories.

Next morning I was introduced to my fellow artistes. The manager was called Nobby Knight and his first question was "what experience have you had?" Promptly I replied I'd got my teacher's diploma, LRAM. On hearing my reply, his language was very disconcerting to the ears of a well brought up young woman. However he had to put up with me and I soon learnt the ropes. From a small child I had always been able to read new music and improvise and I soon blended in as if I'd been with them forever.

Nobby had a daughter called Doris who joined the Ivy Benson's girl's band after the war and she had a lovely voice and sang the popular tunes of the day, such as "Yours", "You are my sunshine" etc which the audience loved.

We always opened with a medley of American tunes with Nobby bashing away at the drums and trumpet plus our violinist and me playing on another ropey piano as a rule! We needed to make a noise, as generally the workers were having their lunch and hundreds of knifes and forks made quite a clatter.

We used to stay one week at a time and visit the various factories then move somewhere else on Sunday. I remember Bristol well as we went to several aeroplane factories, and also, there were two musicians from the LSO staying at our digs who used to sneak me into the Colston Hall to watch the rehearsals conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

One of my first questions on arriving at a venue was "What is the piano like"? It really was a lottery. You just never knew what the instrument was like, and of course, anyone could play on it, so a lot of them were treated badly, notes not playing, pedals not working, not to mention various liquids being spilt on and in the piano! However you just had to get on with it and probably nobody noticed except me, because the audiences were so appreciative, which made it all worthwhile.

We went to one factory in Warrington which produced high explosives and we had to surrender our watches, lighters, hair clips, jewellery and anything that might cause a spark. This particular factory was in Risley which I believe is a prison today. It was very bleak and we had to do two shows at a quarter to two and a quarter to three in the morning for a week, as of course all factories used to work non-stop during the war. It was a pretty weird experience, but even at that unearthly hour the audiences were so enthusiastic.

One of the best places was Manchester which was and is a very musical city, and to my delight most of the factories had decent pianos. We even went to one place which had a grand piano, and we had lunch in the board room with the managing director. It was not always thus — most days it was spam sandwiches in the canteens!

Mostly we went to small towns where so many peace time factories had been converted to the war effort. But I remember Liverpool, as one evening I went to the Liverpool Repertorie Theatre and saw the young Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpman dancing together in 'Façade' by William Walton.

After this, we worked our way up country, finally ending in Scotland where we also went to a few army camps and naval bases. As our tour ended we had a chit from Drury Lane asking if any of us were interested in entertaining the troops abroad. I was delighted to accept and shortly afterwards returned to my home in Hampstead.

We started rehearsal at Drury Lane, and it was a great thrill for me to be playing on the stage at this theatre where I had seen so many shows as a little girl. Ours was a Welsh show called "Taffy's Twelve". The manager was a magician and weight lifter call 'Maskar' and his brother Nat was the butt of his gags and told the old chestnuts! We had a father and son who were ex miners from the Rhondda Valley and played the bones, a tenor from Swansea, a soprano from Blaenau Ffestiniog. We had three dancers including my sister Joan and a whistler from Holyhead and a Londoner who played the accordion and sang. She had been in show business most of her life so rather despised the rest of us as amateurs, but we all got on famously.

After our final dress rehearsal we went for a short tour around the Home Counties and eventually on October the 25th met at Drury Lane and boarded a coach that took us to Euston and hence to Liverpool which took 13 hours.

We sailed on October the 26th not having the slightest idea where we were going. The ship was called the Marnix van St Aldegonde, a Dutch cruise ship that had been converted into a troop ship. This I learnt long after the war had ended, as of course no one was ever told anything during hostilities. We were shown to our 4 berth cabin on B deck and that evening had one of the most wonderful meals since the beginning of the war.

There were twelve ENSA parties including variety shows, straight plays and comedy as well as nurses, WAAFS, ATS and Wrens. We had lifeboat drill every day and were shown our lifeboat stations and so we sailed on little guessing what the future had in store.

In the main lounge there was a lovely piano and I played there most mornings. The weather was dire, and of course we girls had a very good time! I was introduced to the joys of bingo and bridge and most evening we saw one of the shows.

On the evening of November 6th 1943 we were in our cabin getting ready for dinner, when suddenly the sirens went. There was an almightily bang and the ship keeled right over, all the lights went out, and luckily for all of us the ship righted itself. The emergency lights went on and you could hear planes and gun fire and I have since learnt that the plane that hit us was a Heinkel and it was shot down. Apparently aerial torpedoes are not as lethal as submarine ones, and in fact our ship did not sink for 24 hours. Someone knocked on our door to tell us to put our lifejackets on and go to the lifeboat stations.

We waited about an hour to get into the lifeboats, there was about eighty of us including a stretcher case who had been operated on for appendicitis a few days before and the doctor who had attended him passed by with his instruments on his back, and some wag called out 'got your accordion mate'.

Once we were in the lifeboat, we were lowered and one of the davits got stuck and we were nearly all tipped out, but I was in such a daze by then that it didn't really register.

There was a terrific swell on the sea and for the first and last time in my life, I was seasick and every time I leant over, the Filipino sailor said 'sickee missie'?

We were nearly five hours in the boat, but every time we approached a troopship it was full up. Eventually we reached a destroyer in the Hunter Class, HMS Croome, and we were taken on board. They dried us off and gave us a cup of tea laced with rum, and a couple of blankets and we were literally rocked on the cradle of the deep for the rest of the night.

After breakfast next morning we were given a tour of the destroyer as we were not being taken ashore till the evening and we were shown their radar which was quite secret at that time.

By now we'd learnt that we'd been wrecked off the coast of North Africa and were landed at a place called Philippeville. It was dark, cold, and very wet, and there was a fuss as not everyone had their passports. Eventually we were herded into 3 tonners and taken to a large building, given blankets and slept on the floor. There was no food!

Next morning a truck arrived with bread and beetroot with which we made sandwiches which tasted marvellous. We were so hungry.

The Ensa officer turned up later, Brian Reece, who became PC49 in a radio show after the war. We were driven to an old Roman town called Bone, where we were informed that in spite of having no props, costumes or stage makeup we'd be giving a show round the various camps and bases. We were the only ENSA party that didn't go straight to Cairo, as I had all the music in my head. People were so kind to us — the Salvation Army, the church of Scotland and the Catholic Women's League amongst others who gave us toothpaste, soap, pyjamas and when we went to the camps again everyone was so kind especially as there was nothing remotely glamorous about the show. No beautiful dresses no make up and every time our dancers did the splits their flies flew open which brought the house down.

The audiences were wonderful and we had marvellous receptions and parties afterwards. We were often taken round and about, and I was shown so many Roman ruins that I vowed never to go to one again after the war ended. North Africa was so cold and wet!

We met lots of reporters and the daily Mirror man took a picture which appeared in the English papers 10 days later. So my mother was not too flabbergasted when she saw her daughters smiling at her in the Sunday newspapers as Drury Lane had informed our loved ones that we'd arrive 'safely'.

As we were a Welsh party it was arranged to give our show to a battery of Royal Welsh Fusiliers and again we had enthusiastic audiences, although one philistine walked out, though he turned up at the party afterwards and made a beeline for my sister!

We visited Algiers which was very cold and wet but went to several naval camps. It was almost Christmas and we were wondering how soon we could be fitted out. It was very trying living in battle dress but no one seemed to worry unduly.

Towards Christmas we were moved to Constantine again and told we would be going to Cairo in the New Year. I played for several weddings at this time and on Christmas Day we did 3 shows. At the party in the evening we had a carol sing song and guess who played the piano?

Later that week we were driven to Tunis and did a show at the Garrison Theatre then were flown to Tripoli and finally Cairo. I slept all the way. I have never forgotten… seeing all the lights sparkling and the velvety starry sky. We were put in a beautiful hotel called the "Metropolitan" and my sister and I had a lovely en suite bedroom. Next day, we were at last able to buy dresses and make up and started getting ready for our tour of the Western desert. We were so spoilt. And our bedroom was a mass of flowers and invitations. When we went out in the evening, Joan and I always met up at Shepherd's Hotel where I always played the piano in the lounge. One evening the British ambassador was there with a party, and I kept on getting requests. Finally I got a plaintive note from the night manager saying 'His Excellency won't leave until you stop playing". I also went to the British embassy to play to some very badly wounded people who loved piano playing and the car rolled up outside the hotel with the Union Jack on the front and crowns on the doors, so after that, my sister and I were treated like royalty.

Two days later, we were in the train for Tobruk to start our tour of the Western desert. Wherever we stopped dozens of sellers swarmed onto the train trying to sell us eggs and bread. Tobruk was really battered, naturally, but we had a very warm welcome and the audiences were wonderful even if the pianos weren't. Baths were in very short supply and we were always asking people if we could have a bath. We gradually worked our way up to Benghazi which, as we were a Welsh party, had a really good celebration on St David's day, as the naval commander was Welsh. Finally we reached Tripoli and eventually flew to Cairo to get ready for our tour of Palestine and Syria. Unfortunately we lost two of our dancers including my sister to illness so we were rechristened "Taffy's Ten". We started off at Jerusalem, and visited the Mount of Olives, the Wailing Wall, Gethsemane and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was fascinating driving through so many places I had read about in the Bible. One day we had a swim in the Red Sea.

On June the 6th we drove to Damascus, where we heard the news of the invasion. At last, it seemed as though the war was nearing its end, but there was very nearly a whole year of bitter fighting before that happened. Syria was such a beautiful country and among places we visited were Tripoli, Beirut and the famous cedars of Lebanon where the mountain warfare troops were training, camouflaged in white suits.

When this tour finished, we returned to Cairo where Joan had now come out of hospital, and visited naval bases along the Alexandrian Coast. I remember vividly Mersa Matruh. I have never seen such white sands and crystal clear seas. Here we were also taken to the British cemetery at El Alamein, the scene of one of the most famous battles of the war. There were hundreds of plain white wooden crosses. Such a terrible waste of young life.

Finally, we started to prepare for the voyage home hoping that we would arrive safely which we did. We played bridge most of the time. By now, our Welsh party had disbanded but I started rehearsing for a new show for the troops in the home counties, waiting to go to Europe. We visited mostly Canadian troops, and I remember having to play their national anthem, "The Maple Leaf Forever" after each show. They were so kind and gave us cigarettes and stockings which were hard to obtain. Our people were very weary and wondered how much longer the war would go on but at last on May the 8th, just after we had finished the tour, peace was declared.

Shortly I was off again this time to Germany, Holland and Belgium, as of course our troops were still out there. We were known as the Grant Andersons, James and Lena who had been acting all their lives doing monologues and sketches and a violinist, cellist and myself playing music jazz and classical. We went all over the place. The devastation was terrible, and we drove everywhere in 3 tonners, as the roads were full of potholes. When we were in Holland we went to Delft, and were billeted on a family for one night. When we arrived back late, there was the whole family waiting up with cherry brandy, with which they insisted on drinking to all of us as liberators into the early hours of the morning. In the morning they gave us a beautiful Delft plate each.

So eventually, my life in ENSA came to an end. When I got back home, one day the phone rang and it was the philistine who had walked out of our show. He came to lunch one day and since then I've lived happily ever after.

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Message 1 - ENSA girl

Posted on: 15 November 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Dear Catherine

A delightful story and very well told !

I have put this forward as a 'Reader's Pick'

Best wishes


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