Journeying home

By January 1945 Tom’s three-year tour of duty in India was drawing to a close but his journey back to blighty was to be a long and arduous one – it would be three more months before he set foot on English soil.  Sadly, he has not written in any great detail about the return journey (it is mentioned briefly here) but has left his tiny diaries, each no bigger than a playing card, written in a spidery hand that is difficult to decipher. It begins on January 17th 1945:

‘January 17th – Spent the morning sorting and packing my kit, although I’m afraid I shall have to do it again in Calcutta and Bombay. Got cleaned up in the afternoon and went to see concert , ‘Bouys Ahoy’ In the car park at night.

January 18th –  Finished packing today and in the afternoon went up the Ops Room and said cheerio to Joe and the rest. At night felt very depressed but cheered up when Sitchy and Corporal Jackson invited me in for a drink.’

Twelve hours later he was on his way, leaving behind the Ops Room where he’d spent much of his time tracking aircraft movements and his work mates. The first part of his journey was in what he described as the “sick Gharry” the transport which collected the sick and injured and then, even less appealing by air ambulance to the garrison town of Dum Dum more than 300 miles away in West Bengal.   The plane is described more bluntly in Tom’s diary as “the meat kite”.    Back on the ground he spent a “very worrying time finding a billet but eventually got settled in the YM” and in good services tradition went out and “got pissed with Meredith, Fanour etc.”

The next seven days were spent walking, shopping, sleeping and at the cinema or just as regularly, socialising.  Recent films seemed to be readily available, and he watched “This Happy Breed” starring Robert Newton and Celia Johnson; Marlene Dietrich in “Kismet”; “Tales of Manhattan” with Ginger Rogers and “The Invisible Man’s Revenge”!

Tom also reported having a few drinks at “The Bristol” where there was ‘a very riotous assembly’ and on the night of 22nd of January “took part in a discreditable episode” (although he fails to say what it was).

Then on January 27th he waited with his kit outside the Transit Camp for transport to Asurah where, aboard a military train set off, destination Bombay three days away.   It was probably a very uncomfortable journey in the hot humid days, but it was uneventful with just one longer stop en-route.  The passengers ate all their meals and slept onboard and it seems the only relief from the boredom was spotting camels from the train window.  

For the next few nights Tom remained in Bombay waiting for his ship home. Three years away from home had, if anything, fuelled his love of films and making trips to the cinema was a priority in his off time – that and what he describes as “a bit of shopping” perhaps gathering souvenirs.  On February 1st he packed his tin trunk for the final time and checked it in to be taken to the ship, but he had to wait three more days before he and his fellow passengers were called to a parade and given details of their journey and finally handed their boat tickets.

Tom describes his last day in India as “feverish”.  He got paid, had an afternoon nap, no doubt trying to avoid the stifling heat – it would be in the 30s – and then went to the camp cinema to see Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the movie ‘Holiday Inn’.

On Tuesday February 6th he was up 5.30 a.m. and off to the docks, and by noon was aboard the SS Orontes, that would be home for the best part of a month.   The ship was crowded but not as uncomfortable as the Duchess which had brought Tom to India three years earlier.  It had been built for the Orient line in 1929 as a passenger ship the last of the “Orama” Class and great effort was taken to make the public rooms the best of this class.

A postcard of SS Orontes built as a cruise liner in Barrow-in-Furness in 1929

After lunch the Orontes set sail and everyone watched what was regarded as the finest sight in India – the arch Gateway and Ballard Pier which connected to the beautiful Edwardian buildings of the port area of the City.   The following afternoon after some time at anchor, they set course for Aden and although sailing without any escort, the ship did have guns of its own and was going at a good speed so everyone on board was happy.

In a voyage thus far punctuated by boat station drills Tom was nevertheless able to read and sunbathe and after queuing for three hours even managed to buy some chocolate and as, he records, a torch!   Fresh water was rationed to some extent, but Saturday February 10th was a red letter day. “Had a wash all over in FRESH water which was on all day”.

Sun. 11th. Got up a bit later to adjust my schedule and ended up late for breakfast. Saw a sailing ship in the distance, also a tramp steamer and a large fish. Watched ‘The mask of Venus ‘ in Sergeants’  recreation room, and then early bed.

Mon 12th.  Uneventful morning. Boat drill 10.30. After that I read another chapter of I Claudius. In afternoon sighted land, or at least some barren looking rocks. Entered the Red Sea at 11 p.m.

Tues. 13th. Various queer islands appeared today. Blackout lifted and portholes opened. Weather got rougher but ship remained steady. Pictures at night on afterdeck, Belita, in ‘Lady Lot’s Dance’.

After so long in the heat of India the troops could feel the temperature dropping and for a couple of days in the Gulf of Suez it was so chilly (and stormy) many on board were reaching for their “blues” or cold weather uniforms.  However, when they got to Port Tawfiq at the head of the Gulf of Suez they anchored for four days.

Fortunately, the weather had improved and amid conflicting rumours about how long they would remain at anchor, the men made the best of things. Plenty of entertainment was on offer.  In the cinema Abbott and Costello appeared in “Rookies” and later that day, “Champagne Charlie” was screened, starring Tommy Trinder.  The ship’s band staged two concerts, Egyptian traders came alongside offering leather handbags and later that evening, Saturday February 17th, there was a “very good” concert party.

On Sunday the bad news was that the stay would last several days although various preparations the following day led everyone to think a move was imminent.   Sure enough, early in the morning the Orontes entered the Suez Canal and by 5 p.m. they were in the Mediterranean Sea, tied up in Port Said.

Hopes of the chance to go ashore were quickly dashed however because rumours that there was an outbreak of smallpox on board were confirmed with the announcement (on the 21st) that the ship would remain at Port Said for several days and everyone would be vaccinated for the disease.

In fact, the Orontes didn’t set sail again until eight days later, the last day of February, by which time the weather had turned much colder and the order came for everyone to change into their “blues”.  During this time Tom met up with another Whitby man, Ernie Roper.  Ernie was a Whitby hairdresser and a pal from before the war.   A good chance for a chinwag and a bottle of beer in Ernie’s cabin – a social event that was repeated often during the remainder of the voyage.

It was raining when they finally left Port Said and the sea became rough causing the ship to roll a lot – “lots of chaps very seasick” – and although it eased slightly and most had recovered in time for tea the following day, March 1st, Tom was wearing his greatcoat for the first time.

Two days later as they progressed through the Med Tom was put on a four hour gun duty…a problem because this involved climbing a ladder up to the weapon not good for his vertigo, particularly as the sea was rough.   “I was made a fool of by the ladder,” reported Tom in his diary that night.   To avoid a repeat the following day he managed to swop jobs and enjoyed the novelty of four hours on the bridge instead.

The calm of the Mediterranean was shattered when the ship reached Gibraltar. Tuesday March 6th was a strenuous day starting with ‘action stations’ at half-past ten and then the Orontes joined a convoy with Tom back on gun crew for four hours.   Nearby a destroyer was dropping depth charges and action stations was sounded again that afternoon.

The Bay of Biscay was not kind.  The weather worsened as the ship headed north; the temperature dropped, and the seas roughened – unfortunate as Tom was put on duty as a meal orderly.  It isn’t clear what this involved but it’s not hard to imagine the difficulties of serving food or even clearing tables with the ship rolling in heavy seas. That day there were rumours that they would arrive home the following Tuesday – in just four days.

“Friday March 9th – Much cooler today with showers. Rumours that we were 200 miles off Land’s End at 4 o’clock. Great excitement on orders about disembarkation. Fixed my pack and did some clearing up at night.

Saturday March 10th – Cold, grey miserable day, very windy in the evening. We appear to be crawling up the Irish coast. I have now completed my preparations and walked a mile around the deck to keep warm.

Sun 11th. We are sailing due south now but no land in sight. Passed another convoy outward bound. Our escort increased to 10 or 12 and depth charges were heard all day. Had a drink with Ernie and played darts with him at night.

At mid-morning on Monday March 12th 1945 a pilot came on board Orontes and the troops were on deck excitedly looking for first sight of land. By lunchtime they had docked and spent the rest of the day watching the ferry boats crossing the Mersey.  Tuesday was the last day aboard and said Tom in his diary “Thank God for that”.  The following day he was up at 3 a.m. and after a lot of form filling by 5.15 was heading for Blackpool and a night of beery celebration.

After spending a morning getting kitted “we could have anything we wanted” he says, it must have been very strange to go into Blackpool and spend time shopping in Woolworths. But that night, he was at the Palace Theatre to see Florence Desmond before another beery session with a colleague.

On Saturday March 17th, 33 days after leaving India, Tom was on the bus to Lincolnshire where his wife and baby daughter (now of school age of coursse) was staying with Mabel’s sister for the duration of the war.