Tom’s lucky escape

In his retirement Tom remained a prolific writer, whether sending letters to the local newspaper grumbling about one thing or another or simply setting out his recollections of his life gone by. Some of his pieces overlapped, but each adds extra colour and information to his story. In this further account of his time in the RAF, he begins near Newtonards, in Northern Ireland, where he went after escaping from Nazi occupied France – and relates how by luck he avoids being sent to what he believes would have been his death.

“Life in the forces in Northern Ireland wasn’t so bad. A young RAF Aircraftsman could have been in a lot worse places. True the pubs shut at nine, and if you absent-mindedly said “pint please” you got a thick inky liquid called porter. But nearly every vehicle on the road stopped and cheery drivers offered you a lift in fish lorries, bread vans and even a dustcart. The girls in Woolworths suggested you leave your holey socks there for darning. I reckon it was their grannies who actually did this.

This was wartime Northern Ireland and my happy existence came to a sudden end in February 1942 when I was (again) posted overseas. This was one of the lowest points of the war for Britain, second only to post-Dunkirk. The Germans were perilously close to winning the U-boat war and the Japs were rampaging all over the far east.

Nobody in Scunthorpe, not even my family (Tom’s wife and daughter Jill moved from Whitby to Scunthorpe when Tom joined the RAF – Ed) actually believed I was going far, far away. I had been home twice in quick succession on what I said was embarkation leave. The first time the convoy was cancelled. The second time I was named as a reserve – and nobody fell out. The time the reaction was distinctly cool in the old Liberal club, There were no more free pints and a whispering campaign suggested that I wasn’t even in the RAF!

But it was all too true and on a cold, wet afternoon I and hundreds of fellow sprogs sat in a troop transport heading towards a big Canadian Pacific liner, the Duchess of Richmond, in the Scottish port of Gourock.

As we got nearer I rubbed my eyes with amazement. This ship was already full. Not just full but crammed to bursting point with bodies hanging from all points at perilous angles. The bodies were all shouting same thing: “Why are you coming here mate there’s no ****** room”. With difficulty we were shoe-horned on board and shown our places deep down on H deck in what would on a normal vessel be called the hold. Hammocks were crammed closely together resembling sardines in a tin, and when these were full, a matter of minutes, the remaining throng were told to lie on the deck. A worried looking warrant officer dashed round fixing a typewritten notice to any available space. The notice said: “In view of the serious war situation all troop ships will carry fifteen per cent more than the normal number of men”. The notice was signed “Winston Churchill”‘ The notices were not read in respectful silence. There was a simultaneous roar of anger followed by a burst of profanity remarkable even among that swear-prone mass. “What about safety?” asked one innocent. “What about U-boats?” replied a realist. We looked seawards comforted by the sight of three Royal Navy destroyers escorting our convoy.

The tall, narrow Duchess was no lady. She pitched and rolled sickenly in the February gales and a high percentage of the unhappy troops found that they had lost all desire for food. I discovered to my astonishment that although I had never previously been further than a short trip on a fishing boat off the Yorkshire coast I was a good sailor and did not miss a meal.

We had no access to radio, and at a time when secrecy was official, rumour was rife. Where were we going? The Duchess was heading steadily west as though the old tub thought she was back on the CPR trail carrying passengers towards a Canadian holiday. One optimist said he had it on good authority that our destination was Rio de Janeiro, though why the generals should wish to deposit several thousand soldiers and airmen on Copacabana beach half a world away from the action was not explained. Eventually when we reached mid-Atlantic the ship suddenly turned about and headed south-east. Our preliminary movements had presumably been intended to try and hoodwink the U-boat commanders.

Gradually the weather improved and so did the temperature until it reached semi-tropical figures. The sick made a quick recovery and pallid faces appeared at meal times. We found that the new conditions were not an unmixed blessing because the Duchess, having been built for the North Atlantic run, had no air conditioning. The overcrowded hold soon began to resemble a furnace. We cheered up considerably when voices up above shouted “land ahoy” and we found out that we had arrived not at Hong Kong or any other danger zone but Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa. We were allowed up on deck as we anchored off Freetown and saw what looked to us like a tropical paradise. Natives in canoes came alongside and we bartered for seemingly inexhaustable quantities of coconuts, oranges and various other species of fruit.

All too soon we were on our way again and sailed sweatily southwards until the unmistakable shape of Table Mountain hove into view and we anchored off Cape Town.

Another brief stay and then we were off, steaming up the east coast until a magical city appeared on the horizon. This was Durban, a vision of gleaming white skyscrapers and golden sands. And here finally we dropped anchor alongside land, and remained for a glorious three days during which were treated like heroes. White ladies invited us to canteens where food, real food, was piled up in prodigal heaps and huge bowls of fruit were put out for our pleasure. No payment for “our boys” said the ladies. The authorities staged dances at the imposing city hall. It was all too much after that gruelling voyage in cramped conditions. At least three soldiers jumped ship and headed out of town. We never heard of them being re-captured and for all I know they are still in South Africa!

On the second day of our visit we were told we were being transferred to another ship and a near mutiny broke out when the first troops saw it. This vessel had been used to carry Italian prisoners of war and was in a disgusting state. Eventually people-power won, surprisingly, and the powers-that-be decided that we could re-embark on the Duchess.

“Where now?” was the burning question on everyone’s lips. It was with deep foreboding that we heard the engines rev and the anchor chains rattle as we slowly eased away from the wharf.

After several days we heard the familiar cry of “land ahoy” from the lookouts and waited with apprehension. We rushed up on deck and saw a reassuring landmark in the distance. It was the triumphal arch set up in 1911 at Bombay for the visit of King George and Queen Mary to the Delhi Durbar. Never can the Gateway of India have seemed more welcoming. Eventually I found out that we had been originally bound for Singapore. The convoys sailed at monthly intervals ad while were on the high seas the Japanese had captured this much-vaunted bastion of Britain. The unlucky troops on the convoy in front of ours found the Japs waiting for them. Meanwhile our course was altered for India. I had escaped being put in the infamous Changi jail or set to work on the railway of death. I don’t think I would have survived either. I had missed the two previous convoys by lucky chance and then someone had decided to switch me from one continent to another in mid-ocean. It was a decision that had been vital.”

You can see another account of Tom’s voyage to India here